Is recess the key to success?

Seeking to increase instructional time for students, many schools and school districts are considering lengthening the school day and year. In New Jersey, for example, Governor Chris Christie has asked for $5 million in an effort to do just that. 

Adding to the typical 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day and 180-day school year may not seem too unreasonable, but consider this: Finnish 1st-graders are at school only 4.5 hours per day.  And of those 4.5 hours, only three of them are spent in the classroom, leaving the remaining 1.5 hours for recess.  Yes, that’s right, recess.

According to the article, Finland’s Latest Export: A Novel Approach to Recess,” even with time for unstructured play Finnish students have continued to meet and surpass the required scores on assessments for math, reading and science.

The reasoning behind a shorter school day with generous recess time: “Kids are built to move. Having more time for unstructured outdoor play is like handing them a reset button.”

As we know, research shows that when kids exercise it improves their concentration and ability to absorb new information.  It is proven that exercise can actually increase student performance in the classroom.

As states across America continue to evaluate the school day, perhaps they will consider the benefits of unstructured play and make time for student to “reset” with recess.

Tips for independent reading

I recently spoke to a group of middle school teachers about independent reading, and there was quite a range of feelings about the topic. Some gushed about how independent reading empowers their students, while others confessed it was the most difficult and frustrating part of their day. They described a wide range of what independent reading can look like, from a station (while other students are in small group or at the computer) to an entire class reading independently at the same time. At one school I visited, they had instituted school-wide Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) at a designated time of day to reduce distractions and interruptions. 

No matter what independent reading looks like in your school, it can be a challenge to get students to focus on reading for a designated amount of time. Third grade teacher Kate Umstatter shared some advice in this post on teaching students to stay focused. Ms. Umstatter describes how her class worked up to almost one hour/day of independent reading. Below are the six strategies she’s found to be tried and true:

1. Teach what staying focused looks, sounds, and feels like by modeling what they should do with their eyes, hands, mouths, and feet during independent reading. 

2. Relate academic stamina to physical stamina to help students understand what it means to build endurance (in a marathon and with reading).

3. Teach how to refocus by giving guidance on what to do (e.g., breathe deeply) when they’re off track.

4. Use visuals to track reading progress and motivate students.

5. Differentiate by using a variety of strategies and accommodations to help all students increase endurance.

6. Encourage students to reflect regularly by thinking about what keeps them from focusing (sitting by a friend, worrying, hunger) and identifying ways to overcome any issues.

Do you have any strategies that help your students read independently? Share them below.

SATs and the 1,600 you deserved

If you took the SATs before that crazy 2,400 system, you probably should have gotten a 1,600. Congratulations if you actually did.

I know that I should have, except for the Math part, where the points they award for writing your name—is it 200?—would have sufficed.

I still resent that I had to get up early on an otherwise lovely Saturday to read byzantine passages and stare at recondite equations, all while fretting that my No. 2 pencil would swerve outside the bubbles as the seconds of the analog clock ticked.

Enter the new SAT, which may or may not create a more educated citizenry, end inequality, foster diversity and lead to layoffs at test prep factories. Did I forget anything? Oh, it would be nice if the tests could be given on a weekday afternoon.

I'm hoping that the new SAT will actually gauge how much a student knows and is capable of doing, rather than just telling him how much money his parents make (which, chances are, is not enough).

For now, it's impossible to say who will get a 1,600. The new test won't be ready until 2016. Until then, here's some background knowledge to help you ace it:

The Story Behind the SAT Overhaul.The New York Times tries to get inside the mind of David Coleman, president of the College Board, lead writer of the Common Core English Language Arts Standards, and the closest thing the education world has to a Wizard of Oz.

College Board Outlines SAT Redesign It Says Will Be More "Focused and Useful." Includes a chart that shows how the Common Core Standards match up with the proposed SAT changes

New SAT Revision: 5 Questions With Kathleen Porter-Magee. Will "transparency, free help and the rewarding of work that is worth doing every day" make a real difference?

College Board Tests Out Troubling SAT Revisions. A Minnesota Daily reporter fears that the new test's emphasis on America's founding documents will put international students at a disadvantage. I thought we had agreed that knowing our history is a plus.

New SAT Don't Care 'Bout No Fancy Words. Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker is vexed that the revamped SAT will exile obscure words. The shift, designed to diminish test prep mania, doesn't trouble me. I learned plenty of esoteric words after college. When I used one in a sentence recently, my high school nephew exclaimed, "That's an SAT word!" Unlike me, he aced the test.


Reading, writing and coding

There is no denying today’s students are learning in an age where information is available anytime and anywhere. From smartphones and iPads to Google Glass and social media platforms, this generation is one of the most tech savvy groups around.  

Thanks to technology many of the careers today’s students will hold don’t even exist yet. Common careers like app developers or social media managers weren’t even a thought 20 years ago. And jobs that were crucial 20 years ago are fading away, or have long been eliminated. 

As technology continues to advance, it is our job to prepare students to be successful in the world they live in. So it should come as no surprise that schools around the country are placing greater emphasis on computer science courses. 

According to the article “Computer Science: Not Just an Elective Anymore,” in Education Week, 17 states and the District of Columbia now have policies in place that allow computer science to count as a mathematics or science credit, rather than as an elective.

A computer science course involves more than just putting students in front of a computer. The courses often teach them the algorithm process involving hardware, software, and programming, and computer coding. According to, 60 percent of STEM-related jobs are currently in computing.

But don’t let curriculum scare you—as mentioned in the article, third graders from Flint, Michigan, are learning computer-coding techniques through the household game “Angry Birds.”

With any new curriculum there will be challenges. From finding qualified teachers to training current educators, instituting computer science courses in all schools across the country won’t happen overnight, but when it does happen it will be beneficial for every student.

An inspiring quote to go with your morning

Last week we had the pleasure of sharing that teachers overwhelmingly chose their career in order to make a difference in children's lives. This is part of the research conducted for Primary Sources: America's Teachers on Teaching in an Era of Change. Two-thirds of teachers also reported their love of being "part of those 'aha' moments" for students. This quote from a middle school teacher speaks to that and inspired us so much that we wanted to share with you as well. Good morning!

Tips for teaching conventions and grammar in real writing contexts

Cheryl’s eyes bugged out a bit as she perused her students’ writing. “Why do their pieces look like this? Where are the capitals, the punctuation? I teach mechanics and grammar daily, but they don’t apply the lessons when they write.  And, when I ask them to edit, they seldom do.”

This is a common issue, one that is a source of frustration for many teachers.  Yes, we must help students produce loads of writing with joy and purpose every day.  But we also want our writers to master conventions and grammar.  (Refer to the Common Core Language Anchor Standards:  (1) Students will demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing and speaking; (2) Students will demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.)

Here are some practical tips that may work for you or the teachers you work with:

First consider, how are grammar and writing conventions taught?  Students are successful applying skills when they are taught in the actual context of writing.  One context I like to use is a “Morning Message.”  Each day (or class period), I write a message to my students in the form of a letter.  When they arrive, we read it together, discuss the content, then take just a few minutes to observe how the author (me) correctly used language conventions. Over the course of several messages, we’ll circle capitals, end marks, quotations, contractions, verbs, pronouns, homonyms, etc. and discuss their proper usage in the context.  It’s also effective to make intentional mistakes in the message, especially those that mirror errors you see in students’ writing (run-on sentences are a favorite).  Just be sure not to overload them with too many new issues before they’re showing real proof of understanding in their everyday writing of those already covered.  As we all know, it’s hard to make progress as learners when we’re overwhelmed.  Instead, focus on what’s most important, those errors that are most egregious in students’ writing, and address these first over time.

Now here’s a golden ticket.  After about six weeks of school have passed, as students complete drafts they’d like to (or are assigned to) publish in written form, ask them to go back and circle things they know, just like they do in the “Morning Message.”  This becomes a backdoor way into editing that truly works.  It’s motivating to writers to look for what they’ve done well rather than what they have done wrong.  Instead, students hum along, positively reinforcing themselves by circling what they did right and students often find mistakes and fix them.  Viola…editing without pain! 


Note how second grader C.J. crossed out the capital M in the middle of the third sentence, fixed it with a lower case m, and circled it.  Plus, notice how proficient he is in self-monitoring the many skills he’s used correctly!  True mastery has occurred when skills are shown automatically in everyday writing.

Nurture your writers even more by celebrating their findings on the document camera.  This is another golden ticket that doesn’t take much time and really pays off!  By sharing student writing on a document camera the child is able to briefly discuss his or her findings or problem solving (editing), while mechanics and usage are reviewed, once again in context, for all writers.  A sense of confidence and capability emerges in the classroom community, and students become helpful sources of support for one another.  But remember, we don’t want to wait and tack editing on at the end of formal writing.  It must be part of a routine focus for learning to really stick.  Students should be producing all kinds of writing informally across the curriculum throughout the day, along with all types of process writing, the majority of which won’t be taken through to formal publishing.  So, two or three times each week, cash in another golden ticket by asking students to grab any piece and spend three minutes “Circling Things We Know,” then two minutes sharing with a partner.   Celebrate one example with the class.  Such techniques keep conventions and grammar in proper focus.  The issues are grappled with routinely, within real contexts; but the majority of time is safe-guarded for composing and growing writers’ craft (these will be topics of future posts!).

Blended learning 101

You may have heard these buzz words: blended learning, flipped classroom, lab rotation. But what exactly do these terms mean? And what do the schools and classrooms that practice them look like? Heather Staker of the Christensen Institute visited Scholastic last week to share how blended learning is changing K-12 education.

Blended learning describes an integrated educational experience of online learning and a brick-and-mortar setting. In blended learning, students have some element of control over time, place, path, and/or pace.

Blended learning can take on many different forms. Most programs fall into one of four categories:

1. Rotation model – Students rotate between learning modalities, at least one of which is always online learning. Examples of a rotation model include:

Station Rotation – Students rotate among classroom-based modalities on a fixed schedule or at the teacher’s discretion. For example, students may rotate between online learning, small-group instruction, and group projects.

Lab Rotation – Students rotate to a learning lab for their online learning, then spend time in a classroom for other learning modalities.

Flipped Classroom – Students watch direct instruction or lectures (often recorded by their teacher) at home, then spend class time applying skills with teacher guidance.

Individual Rotation – Students follow a personalized “playlist” that determines their schedule and rotations.

2. Flex model – Online learning is the backbone of student learning, though it may direct students to offline activities. Teachers are available as needed, and their role is to serve as a mentor or guide.

3. A La Carte Model – Students take at least one course online, but attend a traditional school. For example, students may take a language course not offered at their brick-and-mortar school.

4. Enriched Virtual model – A whole-school experience where students divide their time in each course between in-person attendance and online learning.

At Scholastic, we’ve seen the power of blended learning through our programs that use the station rotation model: READ 180, System 44, and MATH 180. For more than a decade, READ 180 teachers have empowered their students to succeed with the combination of teacher-led, small-group instruction and adaptive technology.

Schools across the country are moving toward blended learning models to meet the needs of their students, including the charter network Rocketship. Find other examples of schools using blended learning models on the Christensen Institute’s Blended Learning Universe. Does your school use blended learning? What model? Share your story in the comments below.

Virtual field trips open doors to learning

Online classroom events are now more accessible than ever. Educational experiences like virtual field trips are cost effective (read: FREE!) and offer students opportunities they might not have otherwise, like hearing from their favorite author or chatting with a zookeeper about black bear hibernation.  

In February, Google launched Connected Classrooms, a platform for learning through digital field trips. Students and teachers in classrooms are able to join the field trips on the air through Google Hangout. The digital field trips are then recorded and posted on Google Plus.

Recent field trips on this platform included a Deep Dive Exosuit Exploration with Google Science Fair and Diamond Shadows: The Lost History of African-American Baseball.

The next Connected Classroom field trip, Imagining the Future, is scheduled for Thursday, March 6, and will be hosted by Imagine Science Films. On this virtual field trip, students will explore cutting-edge optic technology. Matthew Puttman, founder of Nanotronics, will discuss how everyday electronics, such as our cell phones and computers, are dependent on “visualizing the invisible on the nano scale.”

Scholastic also offers free, online classroom events, incuding Virtual Field Trips, Virtual Author Visits, and Literacy Events. The Scholastic classroom events work in tandem with free online and print materials. One recent Scholastic webcast included a story smashup with best-selling children’s authors Jeff Kinney and Dav Pilkey. On a Scholastic Virtual Field Trip, students go to Ellis Island, take an interactive virtual tour of the grounds, read about young immigrants, and explore immigration data, all through interconnected digital material. 

With the wide range of digital events available, teachers and students have opportunities to explore new places without ever having to leave their classroom.

The maker movement's move into K-12

Hundreds of thousands of people attend Maker Faires around the world every year -- events that celebrate creativity, inventiveness and resourcefulness, and let people show-and-tell the things that they've built. Now, kids and teachers are bringing the excitement and creativity of Maker Faires right into K-12 education.

The maker movement, where kids and adults make things ranging from old-fashioned puppets to homemade video game to projects created with a 3D printer, has been growing rapidly worldwide. But in the last several months, we've seen it crossing over into schools. In two articles in the new Winter issue of Scholastic Administrator magazine, we take you to the front lines.

You’ll visit 6 different locations, from Plano, Texas’s airplane hangar-sized space to New York City’s spare room, and discover how adults and children are mixing to reinvent learning. The second story, from Invent to Learn co-author Gary Stager, explains the basic concept of making, how to start a program in your school, and why this is a truly powerful way for students to learn. 

Teachers collaborate in school and online

Collaboration: the action of working with someone to produce or create something. We know it’s key to success in any industry, but it plays a pivotal role in education. In Primary Sources, more than 20,000 teachers share insights on how they connect with peers and families.

We found that teachers collaborate in and outside of school to best serve their students. Finding the time for collaboration can be challenging (it’s the second most-cited challenge in daily work), and 51% of teachers report not having enough time for this important aspect of the teaching profession.

Inside school walls, teachers spend time engaging in a variety of activities:

  • Exchanging/sharing resources and lesson plans (76%)
  • Learning from each other’s successes and challenges (68%)
  • Discussing how to best meet the needs of individual students (68%)
  • Reviewing student data (66%)
  • Sharing my own challenges to gain my colleagues’ input and advice (62%)
  • Planning units of study across subject areas (52%)

Technology, including educational and social media websites, enables teachers to collaborate with others they wouldn’t otherwise have had the opportunity to collaborate with. I was fascinated to see YouTube cited as the website most used by teachers for professional purposes (used by 76% of teachers).  See the graphic below for the other websites. Do any surprise you?


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