Teach Students the Why

This weekend I spent a lot of time reflecting on what the students know and what they don’t know yet. On Friday they took a quiz and, along with a couple of assignments, I realized that I did not do an adequate job preparing them to read a non-fiction text. This was especially troubling, because we were already half-way through one.

I had to regroup, so I made a list of all of the things that were the most vital for understanding the text and the one that stood out to me the most is something that has been a theme of mine all year. I didn’t tell them the why.

Image result for freedom walkers

We are currently reading Freedom Walkers by Russell Freedman. It’s a great text about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Many of the students know who Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks are, but they don’t know the details of their story. To them these are two figures from a long time ago that we talk about in school.

Today I decided to focus on the why. I started by asking them, “why did I choose this book out of all of the books I could have selected?” They had some great answers along with some superficial but still true responses. We talked about the physical book: the font is bigger, fewer words per page, and there are pictures on almost every page. We also talked about the importance of the Civil Rights movement in history. Several of the students brought up the importance of learning about history so we don’t repeat it. Finally, several students brought up comparisons of things that happened during the movement and how they relate to the world today.

Overall, it was a great foundation that I should have started with at the beginning of the unit. The next thing I asked them was, “how would you have ended segregation if you grew up in the 1940’s and 1950’s?” They struggled with this question like I knew they would. After a couple of minutes, instead of asking them for their answers I asked them how difficult it was to decide on a strategy that would end this massive problem. Then we talked about having a laser-like focus on a problem. We talked about how the bus boycott was meant to end segregation on buses, but their hope was that it would lead to more progress. We talked about taking small steps toward a bigger goal.

I’m hoping this moment to regroup will set them up for success later on. The hope is that in a few weeks they will decide on their own challenges, their own movements they want to start to make the world a better place.


*This is a post that I wrote while I was still setting up my new website. It’s a couple weeks old but still pertinent.

It’s time for some TweetUps!

In education it’s easy to get bogged down and let frustrations get the best of you. To counter that I’m constantly trying to find ways to build my students up. I tell my students why they’re awesome and try to encourage them anyway I can. Sometimes that isn’t enough. Sometimes my words don’t hold the same weight as their peers.
That is what spawned the idea of TweetUps. TweetUps are little slips of blue paper meant to look like a Tweet that students use to write positive messages to each other. They are a chance for students to put some positivity in the world, tell their classmates why they rock, and tell them they aren’t going unnoticed.
Here’s how it works:
There is a box on one of my shelves for students to put completed TweetUps in. Once a week I pull all of the TweetUps and read them in a special edition of my daily announcement videos. The students love hearing Tweetups about them, about their classmates and also sneaking in some inside jokes.
Here is my latest TweetUps video. A student created the theme song, and another student is currently working on a logo:
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1wGdA7XZxw]
It helps create a great classroom culture of building others up. Students can take credit for writing a Tweet or they can keep it anonymous. The nice thing about anonymous tweets is I can share some TweetUps about great things kids are doing, and they don’t know it’s from me. Sometimes it’s better that it sounds like it came from one of their peers.
Usually part way through the year I ask if anyone would like a list of students who haven’t received a TweetUp yet. There are always a handful of students who take the challenge and make sure that every student in class gets recognized. I’m always cognizant of the need for tact on this. I don’t want students to feel embarrassed about not receiving a TweetUp yet and I also don’t want them to feel like their TweetUp is insignificant. So far everything has worked out perfectly.
Once the TweetUps have been read on video they are hung up on a bulletin board. When the bulletin board is full or there is a good transition time (during Winter Break for example) I take all of the TweetUps down and hand them out. It amazes me how many students keep the TweetUps in their binder for the rest of the year.
I can’t take full credit for TweetUps. Below is the PDF of the TweetUp form that I use. My wife designed it for her 5th grade classroom.
tweet ups
TweetUps are a quick way to make a positive change in the classroom.

Our quest up Everest

Today marked my 3rd annual trek up Mt. Everest with my students. It coincides with our reading of Peak by Roland Smith and usually falls on a day about halfway through reading the novel. It is by far one of the most fun spins to a normal reading day.
It all begins with a hook…
Our journey began yesterday towards the end of each hour. I played a “voicemail” I just received on my phone the students “just had to hear.” The message informs them that they have been selected to go on a special excursion to ABC on Mt. Everest.
Then I passed out climbing permits for the students to fill out, which I collected at the end of the hour.
The prep work…
After school the classroom transformation took place. To begin I put half of my desks in my reading corner (I told my students that corner was off limits because of a rockslide). This freed up a lot of my room for the students to set up their “camp sites.” Then I created a giant mountain out of construction paper. I also hung up some pictures of yaks and turned a couple of coffee thermoses into oxygen tanks (it’s the details that make the day fun). Finally, I created a mountain on my classroom door.

Climbing up Everest…
The students started in the hall waiting to enter Base Camp. I handed them their climbing permits and told them about the camps they could choose from: 3 pods of desks, a floor table, some comfy chairs, and the fave, a tent set up in the classroom. They were sent in one guild at a time to choose their camp site based on their guild standings.
Once the kids had their camps set up, I let them create a team banner for their campsite to replace their current guild crests they’ve been using since August. They also had a chance to create new names (my favorites were the YetiYetis and Blizzard Shakers).

While they worked on their banners I let them come over and get some hot tea to “warm up” like they do in the book. Many had never tried hot tea before. I let them add sweetener and honey to it. We also did a mini-lesson on appropriate responses when someone offers you a gift (only two responses: thank you or no thank you).


The kids spent the rest of the hour reading the next chapter in the book at their camp site.

The finale…
The highlight was at the end of the hour I broke the bad news to the students. One of the groups in each hour got frostbite and unfortunately lost the fingers on one of their hands. I had a dramatic dice roll to determine which group would get frostbite. That group then had to spend the rest of the day not using the fingers on that hand. It was hilarious and fun. I saw kids in the hall all day trying to figure out how to carry their books and open doors with their missing fingers.
The cleanup…
The hardest part about the day is cleanup. This year I came up with a solution. To begin I let my homeroom students have a snowball fight with the paper snow on the ground. They loved it. Then I let them play paper basketball with the paper snow into the trash cans. It was great. They were having fun and cleaning at the same time. Finally, I bribed them with some more hot tea to help me reorganize my desks.

Overall, it was an exhausting but great day.
The future…
Next year I’m hoping to add more team building activities around the campfire, team chants and songs, and then have them share some campfire stories they write beforehand.
It’s things like this the kids remember.

My first attempt at Facebook for the classroom

Social media is an ingrained part of most of our lives. Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, it’s hard to keep up. Adding to the challenge, as a middle school teacher I have to balance the effectiveness of social media for students, colleagues and parents. Each group has their preferred social media outlets.
Last year I started a classroom Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat account for my classroom activities. I posted pictures of the students actively engaged in amazing activities and shared about upcoming events.
Twitter was great for sharing my activities to other teachers and school personnel. But students and parents weren’t very active in this space. I already use it for my professional activities and this tied in nicely with that.
Instagram was great for engaging with students and sharing their hard work with their peers. Many of the students interacted in this space, sharing positive comments when students won awards and enjoyed reliving some of the craziness that is room 502.
I couldn’t get into Snapchat. The students are in that space and enjoyed my posts, but when I post something I want it to be more permanent than Snapchat which disappears after 24 hours.
This year my goal is to dive into Facebook for my classroom. I’m hoping more parents will be engaged in this space. Personally, I spend more time than I should checking my Facebook feed, and I think there are plenty of parents that feel the same way.
I created two Facebook pages, not accounts but pages. I made the mistake of creating a new account at first but realized this wouldn’t accomplish the right goals. A page allows you to control what people see and doesn’t give access to your personal Facebook account. I don’t care if parents see my personal account, but most of them are more interested in what’s happening in the classroom and less interested in the pictures of my adorable children I’m constantly sharing.
One page is a professional account for me to share my blog posts, interesting articles I come across and share the same awesome classroom photos that I share on my Instagram and Twitter accounts. In a future post I’ll share how I post to multiple platforms at once. I’ll probably share this Facebook page in more professional settings with other educators, when I present at conferences, etc. However, I’d gladly welcome any parent who would like to see my teaching philosophy.
The second page I created is a classroom page. On this page I’ll share the same Instagram photos from the other account. I’ll also post event information, announcements, etc. I’m debating posting some parenting articles I find too, but I don’t want it to come across as too preachy. The goal of those articles would be to encourage parents to read with their kids and keep them up-to-date on the technology their kids are using.
We’ll see how this goes. I’m hoping it will help me reach more educators, parents and students. If you’ve used Facebook for your own classroom, please share any tips or tricks to help make it successful.

Perception is a tricky thing

Several months ago my wife and I needed a new car.  We did the research and looked at a wide range of cars.  We eventually found a car that we hadn’t seen on the road before.  It was a Ford Fusion.  We love everything about the car and found a dealership that was nearby with a great deal.  As soon as we took it home I noticed something.  There are a lot of Ford Fusions out on the road.  Not only that, but there are a lot of cars on the road that came from this dealership that I had never heard of until that day.
Perception is a funny thing.  We tend to perceive what is important to us and what directly impacts our world.  Our brains filter everything else out, it’s just background noise.  What I thought was a unique car, was actually fairly common, but I didn’t perceive that until I needed to single it out from the noise.
It’s easy to fall into that trap in the classroom as well.  There are times when students will bring things to my attention that I don’t realize are occurring.  Sometimes they are pointing out that an assignment’s instructions are confusing or that they feel I’m treating the class unfairly when I give them a consequence.  It’s uncomfortable.  Nobody likes someone to call them out for something they perceive is wrong.
I don’t always agree with their assertions, but that doesn’t matter.  What matters is that they have this perception.  I have two choices: either I can ignore it and hope they change their minds or I can take the time to look at the situation through their eyes and try to figure out why they feel the way they do. Change can’t happen unless I can truly understand all sides.  
Ultimately, I may still disagree with them. But seeing the world through their eyes gives me the opportunity to present myself in a different manner while still attaining the same results.  And sometimes I come to realize they were right all along.
The world would be a much better place if we could all take the time to perceive things through another’s eyes.

Kicking off a new school year…

Tomorrow I will begin my ninth year of teaching.  This is my 9th year of preservice trainings.  My 9th year of new initiatives and new ideas for transforming our classrooms.  My 9th year of detailed explanations about why my assessment data should be better.
It’s easy to drown in all the minutia of school, the directives and new pedagogy that will revolutionize teaching.  Sometimes it’s important to reflect and remember why we do what we do.
I don’t teach because I want to transform my students into test taking masters.  I don’t teach because I relish the thought of torturing my students with stories they won’t care about.  I teach because I know that I can help guide my students toward a better understanding of who they are.
This year my grade level counterparts and I are focusing on three themes in Language Arts: survival, identity, and hope.  I want my kids to read and write in my class, not solely to become prolific readers and writers.  I want my kids to read and write in my class to discover who they are and to realize that who they are MATTERS.  I teach world changers.  I teach kids who can move mountains and innovate.  I’m teaching the generation that will find peace in the chaos.  I teach so that my students will see the good in the world, to show them that there is hope for the future.  I teach them so that I can remind MYSELF that there is hope in the world.
Tomorrow I will walk through those doors and look into the eyes of my students, and I will be happy knowing that the future is in their hands.
As you go about your school year, I wish you all the best and hope that you take some time to reflect.  Remember that it’s not about a test, or a reading score, or a grade.  It’s not about instituting the correct lesson plan format or the correct note-taking strategy.  It’s about ensuring that your students walk out of your classroom a better person than when they entered it, that they are more prepared for their future, and most importantly that they are ready to make the world a better place.

9 tips for encouraging reading at home

Promoting reading at home is the single-greatest factor in determining a kids success in school.  It can have a drastic impact on test scores, as well as overall enjoyment in school.  One study found that kids who read 20 minutes a day will read around 1.8 million words in a year vs. a kid who reads 1 minute a day and the paltry 8,000 words they would read.  Kids who read every night score astronomically higher on standardized tests than kids who don’t.

As a kid, I was fortunate to be immersed in books from an early age.  My mom read me bedtime stories for years, and my dad modeled constant reading with his audiobooks in his car.  I had reading materials at arms length in almost any room in the house and made weekly trips to the library.  My parents were constantly asking me about the books I was reading and making suggestions.  My dad would give me his car manuals and let me pour over their grease stained pages.

All of this helped develop in me a passion for reading that has continued into adulthood.  Not only am I constantly reading books, but I attribute a lot of my success in school to the reading habits I developed when I was little.
Here are a few tips to help your own kids develop good reading habits that will follow them into adulthood:

1.Read to your children at any age.

It doesn’t matter what age your children are, kids love to have someone read to them.  My 6th graders beg me to continue our read aloud book almost every day.  They like hearing stories through your voice.  Not only do they have a connection to the story, but they also get bits of you mixed in with that.  Reading to them also models how to read with emotion, pause at punctuation, and change pacing depending on the plot of the story.

I can still remember my mom reading and the way she would do character voices.  The characters in the story always had a distinct cadence that I find myself mimicking with my own kids.

Tip: Read books that are more advanced than your child could read on their own to challenge them and develop their vocabulary.

2. Record yourself reading if you can’t be there to read to them.

I wait tables 2 nights a week to help pay off student loans.  On those nights I usually only get to see my kids for about 10 minutes between teaching and my night job.  To keep my daughter from noticing my absence as much I started recording myself reading books to her.  I just use my iPhone and record my voice reading the pages.  I tell her when to turn the page, and I usually leave the book on my daughter’s bed or in her backpack.

I wasn’t sure how much she enjoyed listening to my recordings of the books.  She usually didn’t say anything about it.  Then one night I went into her room to check on her while she was sleeping.  I looked at her iPod and saw that she had the stories on a loop so she could listen to them all night long.

Tip: The audio recorder feature on most phones works great for this.  Don’t stress about an elaborate recording.  Kids just want to hear your voice.

3. Put audio books on your phone/iPod/CD player and teach your kids to do the same.

I always have several audio books going at a time.  I usually listen to a book in the car and one on my phone.  It’s a great way to pass the time on long drives and while doing boring chores.  The other day I was listening to a book in the car on the way to work (Cinder by Marissa Meyer).  It started playing after work when my daughter got in the car.  When I went to turn it off she asked me to leave it on.  I don’t think she understands what is going on in the story, but she loves listening to it.  Now when she gets in the car I fill her in on what she missed.  It’s been a great bonding time having this shared story experience.

I also listen to books on my phone while I’m working around the house.  Teaching kids how to load books onto a device/CD player, can give them a means to read while they are doing other things.

Tip: The public library is a great resource for audio books.  Also, if you find a great reader, find other books read by that person.  Jim Dale for example reads all of the Harry Potter books and is fantastic at developing voices for characters.

4. Model reading.

Good or bad, kids copy what they see us do.  I try to model good reading habits in front of my kids, so I make a point of showing them the books I’m reading.  I can’t always share the plots of some of the books, but I try to show them that I read books for fun.  I read books sometimes *gasp* instead of watching TV.

Tip: If something exciting happens in your book (that you can share) share it with your kids.  They love to see your engagement with reading.  Also, asking questions while reading shows that you are connecting with the book.

5. Have plenty of reading materials on hand.

When I was a kid I had a book shelf crammed and overflowing with books.  My parents also had multiple bookcases filled with books along with stacks of books on tables throughout the house.  We also had subscriptions to several magazines.

That has carried over into my own house.  Both of my kids have shelves of books in their rooms and the bookshelves in my own room are also overflowing.  In my classroom I have books on almost every surface possible.  Kids are often fickle creatures and will do the thing that requires the least work.  If they have to choose between searching for something to read or grabbing the TV remote they often choose the easier task.  However, if a book is within arms reach they’re more likely to pick it up.

Tip: The Half-Price book store is a great place to get books.  Check the clearance section.  There are usually books for $1.  Also, choose books with cool covers.  Kids are more likely to pick it up if the cover looks interesting.

6. Talk about real world reading opportunities as often as possible.

One thing I’ve found with many of the reluctant readers in my classes, especially boys, is that they will read something if they have a purpose for their reading.  For example they will read a strategy guide for the latest xBox game or the instructions for building a new Lego creation.

While it might not help kids develop a love of reading, it’s important to show them the importance of it.  Showing kids authentic reading opportunities can help them understand the value of reading.

Tip: Car manuals, instructions for building furniture, and cookbook recipes are all great real-world reading opportunities.  Talking about things you had to read at work can also show the importance of reading.

7. Put reading materials by the toilet.

We all do it, whether we want to admit it or not.  Most people do some sort of reading in the bathroom, either magazines or playing around with our phones.  You have a captive audience here so leave something worth reading in the bathroom.  I recommend magazines, because they can be thrown away after you’re finished with them.

Tip: Choose something that can be read in short chunks.  Magazines, comics, and bathroom readers are great options.

8. Subscribe to magazines.

Kids don’t always have a lot of time, nor do some kids want to devote a lot of time to reading.  Magazines are a great way to get kids to read in short chunks.  A short article might spark their interest when longer texts seem too daunting.  This is also a great way to tailor readings to a kids interests’.  For example, I love reading entertainment news, so I’ve been a reader of Entertainment Weekly for years.

Tip: Search online because a lot of magazines have discounted rates listed online.  Also, some magazines are free.  Lego puts out a free magazine (that’s really a giant ad for Legos), but it has some fun puzzles, games and stories.

9. Take frequent trips to the library

There is nothing quite like walking through stacks and stacks of books in a library.  The sights, the sounds, and even the smells all make you want to read.  At least they did for me.  Libraries today not only have a plethora of reading materials, they are also a great hub for activities, technology resources, and librarians to guide you along the way.

Tip: One of the biggest things kids struggle with is deciding which book to check out.  Talk to the librarians.  They know A LOT!