Classroom Practices, Education, Uncategorized

So You’re Starting Reading Workshop!

books in stairwellThis year our curriculum team has revamped the curriculum with a reading workshop framework. I am thrilled to see this! I truly believe in the power of a reading workshop classroom and have seen so many kids thrive in this type of environment. While there is no one program or method that is the “end all, be all” of reading instruction, I think it is an awesome move on the part of the district literacy team to spread the workshop model throughout the district.

When I first starting teaching reading workshop, it was a big change and I will admit I did not like it. I really felt like I was not truly teaching because I wasn’t up in front of the room instructing. It took me quite a while to realize that letting students read was the most important reading instruction I could give! Small group and individual conferencing took a while to get the hang of, as well. But once I did, I saw the powerful results of students having ownership of their goals and taking charge of their own progress as readers. Ten minute mini-lessons replaced whole class lessons…another big change that was a bit scary at first! I learned how to use read aloud picture books to kick off my openings and wrap up my closings. They soon became my most favorite times of the day! But the most important things I noticed with this change in teaching style were that my students became lovers of reading, and I became much more knowledgable of them as readers. By the end of that first year, I fell in love with Reading Workshop.

Below are some resources I used which helped me start building my own Reading Workshop classroom.

Using Ipads in Guided Reading

Beth Newingham Videos

Complex Texts: Guiding Readers

Level Your Classroom Books

Units of Study / Mini Lesson Videos

If you are moving to a Reading Workshop format or have been engaged with this style of reading instruction for a while, please share your ideas, thoughts, questions and suggestions so that we can all continue to grow together!


Measuring 21st Century Skills In The Elementary Classroom


I’m often asked to share my strategies for developing integrated units that incorporate 21st century skills. An upcoming PBL I’m developing is on The Alamo. It will blend content areas while building 21st century skills and promoting family involvement.

Giving students opportunities to develop and refine their 21st century skills is something most of us see as paramount to learning in today’s classroom. Where many struggle is not with the “why” but with the “how”. One of the most successful ways I’ve found for doing this has come through integration of curriculum and grabbing ahold of Problem Based Learning. When I talk about integration, I mean that in terms of not only content, but 21st century skills as well. I intentionally plan and integrate these for one simple reason:

What Gets Measured Gets Done.

It’s important that students have the ongoing opportunity to develop and refine these skills. They also need  the opportunity to examine their progress in specific 21st century skills and reflect on how they are progressing over time. Here are four of my rubrics used to measure these skills: 21st Century Skills Rubrics

For this unit, I’m going to bring in:

Collaboration, problem solving,  technology literacy, and public speaking.

Each will be measured throughout  the unit in the form of self, peer, and coach (me) evaluations.

Now let’s take a look at  how I develop integrated units. I will also share my plans for my upcoming PBL as well.

Backward Design Intended Outcomes

 I start with identifying what specific content knowledge and skills are coming up each six weeks, and what students need to know at the end of each respective course unit. This is perhaps the “heaviest” part of the process. I’ll use my own upcoming units as an example here.

Social Studies: Understand the significance of the events leading up to the Alamo, and it’s impact.
Language Arts: Develop and refine skills in reading and analyzing nonfiction text. Develop and refine writing skills and produce an expository essay that includes descriptive details to support a main idea..
Math: Understand and manipulate fractions and decimals, and their relatedness. Understand 3D shapes and identify attributes.
Science: Identify forms of energy and understand interactions, pathways, conversions.

I have specific learning outcomes identified for each content area (though here I am just giving you a brief synopsis of the content covered). I also have formatives and summatives identified so I know where we are going. I can now plan out how to get there.

How And Where To Integrate

 Now that I have my concepts identified, I move on to how and where. Quickly we can see a connection here with Social Studies and Language Arts. So I will start there. I know that, throughout the Alamo unit, I want to include opportunities for literacy skills in nonfiction genres. Here is how I will embed this throughout:

  • Primary and Secondary Sources. I will use autobiographies, letters, journals, and our Social Studies textbook as the mentor texts during Reading Workshop. Mini lessons will center on nonfiction reading strategies.
  • We will examine quotes found in letters and journals to interpret meaning, context, and also find synonyms. Rewrite pleas from today’s perspective.
  • Media. We will critically examine a movie poster promoting the film “The Alamo”, and discuss the impact of the chosen colors, taglines, and images.
  • Writing Workshop will be used to provide instruction on effective expository writing strategies, with opportunities to respond to Alamo related prompts, journaling, letter writing, persuasive debate, and cause and effect essays.

Math.  We are working with fractions and decimals, while continuing to spiral in measurement concepts and move into 3D shapes and attributes. How can I use the Alamo unit to support this learning?

  • We will learn about the number of soldiers and ratios between armies.
  • Money as it relates to this historical period.
  • Proportions.
  • Fractions of time.
  • Comparison of rifle and musket range of fire (200 yards/70 yards) and conversion.
  • Examine 3D shapes and attributes found in pictorial representations of Spanish missions.
  • Suggest and design upgrades to the Alamo layout.

Science. We are going to identify forms of energy and how they interact with matter. I will include:

  • Potential and kinetic energy as it relates to gunpowder, cannons, and firewood.
  • Thermal energy.
  • Sound energy as we listen to replays of music used during this battle.

Social Studies. We will examine key players, dates, and locations. We will consider events leading up to the battle, and impact on future events. Students will uncover the significance of this historical event and take a virtual tour of the site using Google Earth  tour.

Ongoing Formatives
Planned throughout in each content area to measure progress on specific content skills as well as 21st century skills. Ongoing feedback allows students to refine and improve in each strand. The Alamo PBL includes benchmarks along the way which are related to both content and 21st century skills. As an example: Students can improve on a grade in Social Studies by improving on a 21st century skill, such as their current level of performance in the area of collaboration.


The Driving Question
In creating a Problem Based Learning unit, I start with looking at the standard. I then develop a driving question. This is the most difficult part of the task. It’s also the most critical. We want students to not only know what they are learning, but internalize and be able to articulate why they are learning it. The DQ is written ultimately for the students. The question will fuel understanding if it’s written well, articulates the standards, and includes a motivation to learn. It can promote ownership and guide students as they move through to unit. It also needs to include a community connection. I use a “tubric” to help me do this. Here is a video on that:

Here’s my DQ:

Why did the American public popularize the Alamo and how might this legacy apply to my own life?

Now, this is the over-arching DQ. Throughout the unit there are Learning Targets which are written to help them ultimately answer that driving question. Here are questions that will be embedded in this PBL:

What were the issues leading up to this battle, and why were they important?
How did those issues impact decisions that were made?
What might I have done had I been involved in this event? What are the issues that drive that decision?

What are some suggestions I might make if I were in a position to affect change?
How can we share our impressions of the Alamo battle with a larger audience?
How do members of my family approach decion-making situations?

Though they will be incorporated throughout, the above DQ’s are where I will specifically embed those 21st century skills I will assess within this unit. I will leave much to student choice as far as designing their final products is concerned. However, I will provide structured choices for them to consider and work with them to identify appropriate avenues for demonstrating their learning. I also have identified required products along the way to help build capacity and to assess 21st century skills. Each week, the four identified 21st century skills will be assessed through these required activities:

Week One

Collaborate in book clubs using texts centered on the event and players involved, such as biographies
Compare/Contrast presentation essay on two key players
Measurement and Conversion/Time/ Fractions

Week Two:

Digital descriptive timelines
Decision Making Brace Map  presentation
Journal entries from different perspectives/problems/solutions (will continue throughout)

Week Three:

Character trait analysis
Student-chosen problem and it’s impact: Cause and Effect presentation Graphic Organizers
Critical writing on energy conversion in science
Collaborate to design a movie poster for an Alamo film. They will decide on a tagline, colors, and actors who they imagine would portray main and supporting characters. These will include critical writing on the reasons behind their selections.

Week Four:

Student-chosen problem and it’s impact: Cause and Effect Graphic Organizers
Impact of different energy sources on the events of the Alamo/presentation
Fraction and decimal conversion practice with Alamo facts and figures we uncover

Week Five:

Students collaborate to produce a news broadcast of a self-selected problem and it’s impact on events
4 Corner Stance with critical writing to defend a position
Shared Classroom Debate with Public Speaking Skills

Week Six:

Collaborate and submit suggested upgrades to Alamo design and layout
Expository Essay: An Important Decision I Have Faced

The final product needs to answer the driving question. These will make excellent artifacts for our Standards Based Bulletin Board as well. For more on SBBB’s embraced by my district, visit this link.

Guiding Options for Final Products:

Web page design
Student-produced documentaries on a chosen Alamo figure
Artwork depicting important events and/or people
Digital Biographical sketches
Reenactments, student-written plays
Poetry anthologies related to the significance of the Alamo/events
Personal analysis through persuasive essay
Resource curation on Pinterest or Live Binder
Creation of games (can be 2d or 3D)
Blueprint design of the Alamo, accompanied by student built model to scale. Includes Legacy Snapshots, which are written supporting documents placed on the model
Produce and direct a Public Service Announcement
Lyric writing/music to accompany a scene

Each will allow for problem solving, collaborating, and public speaking/sharing work.  By choosing an option above, or by following their own inventive ideas,  we can leverage student passions, which always become top-notch products! Each product must be submitted in digital form for uploading to student’s ePortfolio. This will allow for sharing of work with a global audience. Students will include a written reflection on the product, it’s significance to the student, and what was learned through the creation of that product. Each student will also be encouraged to provide ongoing feedback to their peers both during the learning and on the final product. Weekly projects can also be uploaded to ePortfolios, with students selecting the artifacts to share globally.

Community/Family Impact
Students will talk with their families about how they approach big decisions and collect this information. They will explore with their family different strategies for making decisions and short/long term goals. These will be compiled into a class “family advice” book that students can refer to when facing their own “big decisions”. I think this will be a great way to open home communication and provide students with a variety of diverse viewpoints.

Throughout this six week unit, there will be specific mini-lessons and common assessments as written in our curriculum. The backdrop for our day to day learning and connections will be Alamo PBL.

All in all, I’m looking at a great opportunity to develop my students 21st Century Skills, integrate curriculum for deeper understanding through a PBL, and promote family involvement with building decision making skills. So I am very excited heading into the 4th six weeks!

For more on PBL and integrated curriculum, visit here. Visit the Buck Institute for Education for further research based information on PBL.

SBBB informative PDF link that I referenced originated via NISD website.


Mr. Myagi-An Ode To Student And Mentor Teachers

KK1new & Edited by me on 1/11/14

I often wish I could have a do-over with my first class. I’m afraid they didn’t learn much from me. My mentor teacher was somewhat disengaged, and the student teaching experience was of such unremarkable value that I barely remember it. Next week, I’m hosting a student teacher. Even though I have taught for 15 years, I still always think, “why me?” when this comes up. I don’t see myself as any kind of expert in this. But I do see this as a significant opportunity to have a strong, lasting impact on a future teacher and thus hundreds of students. I will also get to learn some things from my student teacher (I always do!). Collaborating with enthusiastic and excited soon-to-be teachers is always a great joy! So for that, it is a privilege for me to do this.

With this comes great responsibility. I’ve been thinking a lot about what things I want to leave her with -what type of impact I will strive to have- because whether good or bad,  at the end of this experience, I will have had one.

One of the best mentoring experiences I’ve witnessed was portrayed in the movie Karate Kid. Now, I am  nowhere near the mentor Mr. Myagi was. The best I can hope for is to try and have a positive impact and share some things I’ve learned that have helped me be an effective teacher (most days). So what can mentor teachers, and student teachers, learn from Mr. Myagi and Daniel-san? Here are five things that I think are important, and what I’m going to try and incorporate as we go through this experience together.

Mr. Miyagi: “No such thing as bad student, only bad teacher. Teacher say, student do.”

Be prepared every day. Come to class with a knock-out lesson. Plan experiences that keep students engaged, leverage their curiosity, and allow them opportunity to actively engage in their own learning.  One thing I’ve learned is that when the lesson doesn’t include plenty of opportunity for active learning, students will disengage. At that point,  classroom management issues will appear.  By contrast, planning lessons (experiences) that captivate, challenge, and motivate will keep most – if not all-students on task.

Mr. Miyagi: “Daniel san, karate here (he points to his forehead). Karate here (he points to his heart). Karate not here (he points to his gut). You understand?”

Know your students. Build relationships with them in such a way that you know what they like, how they learn, and what motivates them. Teach from your heart. If you are passionate about the topic, show that! It will rub off on them. Love your kids and love what you do every day, even on the bad days (which will happen). Always remember that you are not teaching a content–you are teaching kids. Your love for students and teaching will carry you through even the worst days–those days when your stomach is tied up in knots due to failed attempts, piled up paperwork, and worry over tests and such. Keep the focus on your kids and your passion as much as possible.

Daniel: “Hey, what kind of belt do you have?” 
Mr. Miyagi: “Canvas, you like? J.C. Penney, $3.98!”

What makes you, YOU? A good piece of advise is to take risks, grab ahold of initiatives and trends that come along, and always be willing to learn from others. Observe what works for veteran teachers. But at the end of the day, you must develop your own style and what works for you. There are fundamental things that make you who you are, and those will work to your advantage in the classroom. Own your strengths-know when to adopt something and when to discard it. Just because it looks good on the teacher next door, doesn’t always mean it’s going to look good on you! Take the good things and tailor them so that they build upon your strengths.

Mr. Miyagi: “Win, lose, no matter. You make good fight and respect. Then nobody bother.” 
Daniel: “Ya, they’ll bury me where I fall.’ 
Mr. Miyagi: “Either way, problem solved.”

Standardized tests cause every teacher a little stress. There exists a common divide as to whether to teach content or teach to the test. My philosophy is this: If we teach the standards in such a way that we help develop critical thinking and reasoning, and build in successes so that they believe in themselves,  students will do fine with whatever opponent they face. I keep the focus on the day to day learning. I know what content is covered and I know how it is typically presented on the test. I try to mirror that with such things as “question stems”  and level of rigor. But at the end of the day, my belief is that as long as my students are prepared through daily trainings, the final match will take care of itself.

Daniel: “Wouldn’t a flyswatter be easier?” 
Mr. Miyagi: “Man who catch fly with chopstick, accomplish anything.”

There are many times when we as teachers think, wouldn’t it be easier to just _____ (fill in with whatever). Easy is easy, but shortcuts are rarely effective long term. I’ll use math as an example.  Yes, it’s much easier to teach a formula for solving a problem. Students can memorize the formula, practice it enough to become proficient at it. But will they understand the “why” behind what they are doing? Will they have built conceptual knowledge? Doubtful. This may be fine short term-to get them through the unit, the test, the grade. But down the road, problems will emerge because they failed to learn and understand what is happening behind and within those mathematical processes. This goes back to the earlier idea of not teaching content, but teaching kids. Easy isn’t always the best choice. Be wary of shortcuts.

As I get ready to host a student teacher, I want to make sure that I focus on not only the specific tasks, but also pay attention to her as a person. I hope to fuel her love of teaching so that when she enters years 1-5, she doesn’t become on of the all-too-common victims of teacher burnout. I’m not the expert by any means, but I do want to have a positive impact and help her cultivate her own unique gifts and talents. So I will also focus on this:

Mr. Miyagi: “Just remember; license never replace eye, ear, and brain.”

I’m looking forward to not only teaching, but learning from her. So here’s to not getting too caught up in the brittle and cold analysis of our craft, and focusing instead on individual reward for both of us.

I am honored to serve in this capacity! I will return to update as we go through the journey together. How many of you have had the privilege of hosting a student teacher? What insights can you share about the experiences you’ve had?


Coaching Students Through Feedback


Articles referenced are hyper-linked.

Today started out like any other weekend morning. I woke up, poured my coffee, and powered up the IPad for my daily PD ritual: Twitter and blog reading. As I browsed the articles and read a few updated posts, something caught my eye.  Among the hashtags and updates was the quiet retweet of a blog. Something about the title attracted me, so I followed the link. For the next hour I was totally engrossed in what I was learning on the website Authentic Education and a few blogs entries written by Dr. Grant Wiggins, President of Authentic Learning and co-author of the program Understanding by Design.  One of his blog entries in particular really resonated with me: “Feedback-How Learning Occurs”. Here is the beginning of his post:

Feedback is a word we use unthinkingly and inaccurately.  We smile at a student, say “good job!” and call it feedback.  We write “B-“at the top of a paper and consider it feedback.  We share a score on the state test with a student and his parents and consider it feedback. But feedback is something different. It is useful information about performance. It is not praise, it is not evaluation, it is not a number on a standardized test. So, true feedback is critical—perhaps the key element—in effective learning. -Grant Wiggins

Now let’s pair this with the wiki definition of feedback below:


The key part of this which I focused on was “….used as a basis for improvement“.

Now, a few things to note: I tend to think systemically.   My thinking process revolves around (and among, and between) relationships and connectedness, seeing separate ideas as systems. Synthetic thinking. When I am introduced to something new, I immediately begin connecting ideas and configuring information in ways that make sense—bringing different parts together into a whole. This is why things like integrated curriculum, contextual understandings, and even PBL are such natural and comfortable areas for me.  So naturally, I pulled out a Hattie & Temperley article on feedback (here) which I’d read a while back and began synthesizing information. Considered together, the article written by Dr. Wiggins seemed to help bring these big ideas into focus for me. I won’t bore you with the connections I made between the two. Unless you ask 🙂

I then navigated to another article by Dr. Wiggins, “The Shift From Teaching Content To Teaching Learning“. This is a fascinating article on changing our mindsets and moving from teaching content to being learning coaches. What I got was this: I don’t want my feedback, or teaching, to be a “yes you did this correctly” or “no you need to work  on this”.  I want to coach the learning process11 itself. I want students to understand the results of their thinking and the outcomes of their ideas. In this way they can begin developing the self-regulation and meta-cognition processes they need in order to experience understanding.  I want the feedback to serve as a push forward, not a destination to which they arrive. I found myself fascinated with this joining of topics: feedback and coaching.

I pulled out a stack of narratives written by my students which I’d brought home to “grade” over the break. My focus at this point was on applying the principles of effective feedback and coaching their learning. I also wanted to compare my results with how I might have done this before. How was my feedback different this time? How did I approach this task, compared to the way I approached it before? Below are some examples of my changes:


In each of the examples above, my first feedback was more “destination” focused (and more like advice):

You did this – Now do this -Here is your score.

In the second attempt, I tried to design my feedback as more of a tool, while including some “learning coaching” within it.  I think this is much higher quality feedback and will hopefully lead to greater internalization and understandings on my students’ part. When mastering a process, Hattie’s research points to delayed feedback as being most effective. So I think this will further the effects I’m after.

What I’m understanding is that feedback is the journey, rather than the final destination.

I am eager to continue exploring these ideas as I shift the goal of feedback from an outcome, performance based judgment- such as  “You scored a 3!” -to one which truly serves as a vehicle for shaping my students’ understandings and strengthening their conceptual knowledge of writing. I want to make sure that, as the definition above reads, my feedback is given as a basis for improvement. I want to be careful that it is serving as a means to an end, and not the end itself.

I can’t wait to share these remarks with my students. What is your system of giving feedback? How would you classify the purpose it serves? How is it evolving? How can you incorporate more opportunity for-and combine- effective feedback and learning coaching?

Sources:;; originally published at; The Power of Feedback, John Hattie & Helen Temperley. Review of Educational Research, March 2007, Vol. 77, No. 1, pp. 81–112.; Wikipedia-dictionary.

All sources downloaded and linked within the article on 12/29/13.