Category Archives: Helping Readers

Developing Learning Cards for Primary Students

One of the instructional practices that I am the most passionate about is using Unit Overview Sheets to give students opportunities to assess their OWN progress towards mastering required outcomes during the course of a cycle of instruction.

(See here, here and here).

The way that I see it, we do our students a disservice when all of the goal setting and assessment done in a classroom is done by teachers simply because the most successful learners are also almost always the most reflective.  If our kids don’t get comfortable with identifying their strengths and weaknesses — or believe that assessment is the job of  every learner — they will struggle in a constantly shifting knowledge-based economy.

Don’t take my word for it, though. 

Instead, Check out John Hattie’s research on the instructional practices that have the biggest impact on student achievement.  Four of the top fifteen highest leverage practices identified by Hattie — self-reporting grades, teacher clarity, feedback and metacognition — can be easily integrated into classrooms using Unit Overview Sheets with students.

What makes Unit Overview Sheets even more powerful is that their development can focus a collaborative team of teachers.  

Deciding on a small handful of essential outcomes for each cycle of instruction is an approachable practice that also helps to ensure that every student at a grade level or in a school has access to a guaranteed and viable curriculum.  What’s more, unit overview sheets can be used to write assessments and to determine remediation and enrichment needs on a learning team.  One document, then, serves as a starting point for every conversation, simplifying what can oftentimes feel like overwhelming work.

But here’s the hitch:  The unit overview sheets that I typically use with students are almost always text heavy.

Check this one out, for example.  While it’s incredibly useful for my sixth graders, the fact that there are SO many words and SO little white space makes the document age inappropriate for students in grades K-3.

So I’ve been tinkering around with a new idea for primary teachers that I am calling Learning Cards.

Here are a few samples.

My thinking is that a Learning Card will include ONE essential outcome at a time — so the samples linked above would be printed on card stock and then cut in half.  Instead of passing out a Unit Overview Sheet at the start of a cycle of instruction and asking students to refer back to it time and again, teachers might share one Learning Card per week with students — a simple step towards keeping students from being overwhelmed by expectations.

Like Unit Overview Sheets, Learning Cards will share expected outcomes in age appropriate language — and I still prefer the I Can Statements suggested by Rick Stiggins and his colleagues at the Assessment Training Institute.  Learning Cards, however, will also include pictures and/or other visual cues that can make the learning target approachable to non/early readers.  I’ve been getting those pictures/visual cues from The Noun Project website — but any source of interesting clip art would work.

And like Unit Overview Sheets, Learning Cards include a system for students to track their own progress towards mastery, but they are limited to two choices:  NOT YET and YOU BET — terms originally brainstormed by a group of brilliant teachers at Flynn Elementary School in Burlington, Vermont.  My thinking is that students would color the NOT YET box — maybe in red — for any Learning Card that they thought they were still struggling with.  When they were confident that they had mastered the outcome, they would color the YOU BET box in green.

If it were my classroom, each student would hang their Learning Cards on a book ring.  That would make them readily accessible for review.  Students could pull out their book rings once or twice a month, sorting their Learning Cards into NOT YET and YOU BET piles.  Better yet, students could use their cards during student-led conferences, walking their parents through the outcomes that they had mastered and the outcomes that they were still struggling with.

Finally, teachers could use the Learning Cards to quickly sort students into remediation and enrichment groups — and could bring learning cards to PLC meetings as a reminder of the skills that kids were struggling with across entire hallways.

Does any of this make any sense?  What are your first reactions to the notion of developing Learning Cards to use in primary classrooms?  What changes would you make — either to the structure of my Learning Cards or to my suggested strategies for using them in the classroom?  

Looking forward to hearing what you think!

Related Radical Reads:

Is YOUR PLC Identifying Essential Targets Together?

Asking Students for Feedback on Unit Overview Sheets

My Middle Schoolers LOVE Unit Overview Sheets!


Buy a Boy a Book for Christmas!

For the last few years, I’ve been posting a list of books that middle school boys might totally dig as a public service to parents who are out Christmas shopping for their kids.  You see, I really DO believe that books should be under every tree simply because gifting books sends the message that reading is special — and that’s a message that every kid needs to hear.

So if you are the proud owner of a twelve-year old boy, think about picking up one of these titles.  They are guaranteed to capture your kid’s attention and/or imagination:

Howtoons – Tools of Mass Construction: Over the past few weeks, there’s been a buzz coming out of the Guys Read club run by my buddy Mike Hutchinson — and that buzz centers around the Marshmallow Shooters that he’s got kids making.  When I asked him where he got the idea, he pointed me to the Howtoons website, which is committed to introducing kids to scientific principles through graphic novels and really cool tinkering projects.  That’s when I picked up Tools of Mass Construction, an encyclopedia of tinkering projects — think stomp rockets and do-it-yourself tripwires — that will keep every middle school boy busy for months.

Steelheart Steelheart is the first book in Brandon Sanderson’s The Reckoners Trilogy.  It’s set in a screwed up future version of the United States where small groups of citizens woke up one morning with super powers.  The hitch:  Everyone gifted with super powers — known as Epics in the story — is corrupted, using their unique strengths and abilities to grab power and abuse everyone else.  The only group brave enough to stand up to these villains are the Reckoners — who through careful study and crazy weaponry work to take down each of the Epics one-by-one.  Steelheart details the work of the Reckoners to take down the strongest of the Epics — a guy with no apparent weaknesses that can turn anything he touches into steel.

Gregor the Underland Chronicles:  One of the simplest truths about middle school readers is that they are WAY into fantasy stories — and one of the most engaging fantasy series that I’ve read in a while tells the story of Gregor the Overlander — a boy from New York City who stumbles into an amazing world of adventure after his baby sister falls through a hole in the floor of the laundry room in his apartment complex.  The challenge for Gregor is that the new world that he’s discovered is in the middle of a Civil War.  Talking rats are trying to wipe out a nation of humans living underground.  Worse yet, Gregor learns that whether he likes it or not, HE is the key to saving his new friends and restoring peace to the Underland.

Anyone else have suggestions for titles that might resonate with middle school boys?  If so, leave them in the comment section.  The way I see it, turning boys into readers — which is no easy task — is a goal that we should ALL care about.


Related Radical Reads: 

Are YOU Looking to Buy a Boy a Book for Christmas?

Real Men Read

Three Fantasy Series Your Middle Schoolers will Dig

Reading is NOT Optional


Five Thinkers Every New Teacher Should Follow

Months ago, a good friend named Jen Hasler-Troutman asked me to whip up a list of folks that I think all new teachers should follow — either in Twitter or on their blogs.  She’s a mentor this year and wanted to give her mentees a starting point for swimming in the digital soup.  I FINALLY got a few spare minutes to put that list together for Jen and thought you might like seeing it, too.

Five Thinkers Every New Teacher Should Follow:

John Spencer (Twitter, Blog):   After spending eleven years as a middle school teacher, John has just moved into a position as a professor of instructional technology.  What I love about John’s writing and thinking is that (1). it is incredibly practical, full of ideas that I’m ready to try the minute that I read them and (2). it challenges my thinking around what classrooms could/should be.  John also writes more generally about creativity and living in a connected world.  That writing forces me to wrestle with bigger ideas and trends beyond the classroom — and I appreciate that.

Pernille Ripp (Twitter, Blog): After spending the majority of her career teaching elementary school, Pernille is in the middle of her second year as a seventh grade language arts teacher.  Her blog is also incredibly practical and full of ideas that I often take “as-is” and use in my own work with students.  She’s grown a reputation as an expert on classroom blogging, but I find her to be just as skilled at sharing ideas about reading and writing instruction — as well as an expert at strategies for structuring healthy classroom environments where students are empowered.

Richard Byrne (Twitter, Blog): The plain and simple truth is that technology is going to play a seminal role in the work that teachers new to our profession are going to do over the course of their careers.  No blogger introduces me to more new technologies than Richard Byrne.  The short, tool-centric bits on his Free Tech for Teachers site spotlight new services worth exploring OR new applications for existing tools that I’d never considered.  He’s a amazing curator of #edtech content — and that curation saves me time.

MiddleWeb (Twitter, Website): While it is specifically designed to support teachers in grades 4-8, I think MiddleWeb is a FANTASTIC resource for every teacher who is new to the classroom.  In fact, over the years, they’ve developed an incredible collection that they call New Teacher 911 designed to point rookies to resources that they can use to tackle all of the common challenges that trip us up early in our careers.

Mindshift KQED (Twitter, Website): Finally, I think it is essential for new teachers to question the fundamentals of our profession.  Doing so depends on constantly reflecting on cutting edge ideas.  That’s the kind of content that Mindshift — a blog maintained by a Bay Area public television network — produces regularly.  On any given day, you’ll find bits challenging grading practices or spotlighting practitioners who are reimagining learning one lesson at a time.  It’s good stuff that will resonate with any teacher who knows that our schools need to change in order to better serve modern learners.

What thinkers would YOU recommend that new teachers follow?  Drop your suggestions in the comment section and let’s see what kind of list we can come up with together!


Related Radical Reads:

Five Guys that I Love Learning Alongside

Twelve Remix-Masters Who Have Changed My Thinking

Three Blogs that You Should Start Reading


Interview on Cell Phones in the Classroom

Earlier this week, a high school journalism student reached out to me.  She was working on a column connected to the policies that schools have governing cell phone use in our buildings and had stumbled across a column that I wrote a few years back for Ed Leadership.  Knowing that I was still a classroom teacher, she sent me a list of questions and asked me to reply.

Figured you’d be interested in my responses:

Question: Do you feel that cell phones should be used as educational tools in the classroom? Why or why not?

My Answer: Absolutely.  The simple truth is that cell phones are an incredibly powerful tool for any learner.  They make it possible to connect to ideas and individuals at any time and from anywhere.   Overlooking that reality is a failure on the part of classroom teachers.  Our goal shouldn’t be to ban access to powerful tools for learning.  Instead, our goal should be to show the students in our classrooms how to take full advantage of the learning potential sitting inside their purses and their back pockets. 

Question: Coming from a viewpoint of a teacher, how would you prevent distractions with cell phones?

My Answer: This is going to make some teachers angry, but I’m not convinced that cell phones distract students.  Instead, I’m convinced that boring lessons distract students.  

When my students are off-task, I look first at the work that I’m asking them to do.  If that work is disconnected from student interests or focused on content that no one cares about, student distractions are a function of my choices as a teacher.  Why should I be surprised when kids use their phones as an escape from lessons that are divorced from any real meaning?  Students who are given the chance to affect real change in the world or to ask and answer interesting questions are rarely distracted by their cell phones. 

Here’s another take:  We are ALL surrounded by distractions every minute of every day.  When I’m bored — in faculty meetings, while on hallway duty, at church on Sunday mornings — I pull out my cell phone and start surfing the web too.  

Maybe it’s time that we start teaching students how to deal with that reality.  Banning cell phones from class may eliminate some distractions — but it also leaves students poorly prepared to handle the always-on world that we live in.  Openly talking about how to manage our attention in a world where being distracted is easy could be the most important lesson that we teach — and teaching it is impossible in buildings that ban cell phones.

Question: What age would you say would be appropriate for students to get a cell phone in general?

My Answer:  My first reaction is that schools should start allowing students to use cell phones in schools around grade six.  That’s simply because it seems like most students get their first phones by grade six.  

If the majority of the students in a grade level or a school have phones, it’s imperative that schools start showing students how to maximize the learning potential in those devices.  Ignoring devices that our kids already carry has consequences:  Students end up seeing their phones as tools for being social but fail to see their phones as tools that can help them to grow as learners.  

Question: Do the students use cell phones or technology at your school? If yes, do you observe the students benefit from it? Or do they get distracted easily? If no, would you ever begin to use cell phones or technology?

My Answer: Our school started a BYOD program this year.  What that means is that students can use their own technology — cell phones, tablets, Chromebooks — in our classrooms without fear of consequences for the first time.  I’m straight jazzed by that opportunity because North Carolina’s schools have been underfunded for the better part of a decade.  As a result, classrooms — particularly those in schools that have been around for a while — have almost no technology.  Allowing students to use their own devices means that I can actually plan lessons that use technology on a regular basis.  

I think the greatest benefit to the students in our school is that they finally have opportunities to learn how to tap into the power of the Web with the guidance of teachers.  If I can teach the kids in my classroom more about the role that the Internet can play in the lives of connected learners, they will leave my classroom with skills that will make them more successful regardless of the careers that they decide to pursue.

Question: As a teacher, how much technology do you use on a daily basis? Do you feel it is easier to use paper or computers for your work?

My Answer:  We use technology in our classroom in the same way that you probably use technology outside of school.  When we have a question that we can’t find an answer to, we turn to the Web.  When we are looking for partners to study with or experts that have information that they can share with us, we turn to the Web.  When we make discoveries that we want to share with someone else or when we want to make a difference in the world outside the walls of our school, we turn to the Web.  

That work is often informal rather than planned — but that’s the key to good technology integration.  Our goal shouldn’t be to use technology to learn.  Our goal should be to learn — and if technology can facilitate that work, so be it.  


Related Radical Reads:

Blaming and Shaming Teachers for Low Level #edtech Practices

#edtech Reflections for Preservice Teachers

Digital Immigrants Unite!

Three #edtech Tools Worth Exploring Right Now.

An interesting email landed in my inbox the other day.  A middle school teacher from California asked me what #edtech tools I was planning on using this year.  “There’s so many tools to choose from,” he wrote.  “Where should I start?”

While there’s no one right answer to his question — choosing #edtech tools should start with a clear sense for the kind of learning space that you are trying to create — here are three tools that I’ve used in my classroom already this year:

Socrative (and Mastery Connect): One of my personal goals for this school year is to do a better job at assessing learning.  I want to gather information during the course of instruction and then act on that information.  Similarly, I want to track progress by student and standard — and then provide differentiated learning experiences based on the information that I am collecting.

Those are solid goals, right?

That’s why Socrative — which allows me to ask questions and gather information quickly — has been a regular part of learning in my room already this year.  Students don’t need a username or a password to login to Socrative and the service works well on any device –phones, tablets, computers — eliminating half of the headaches that come along with using digital tools in the classroom.

Today in class, I used Socrative to ask a series of questions about independent and dependent variables.  The entire activity took 10 minutes to create and 10 minutes to deliver.  When it was done, I knew instantly which students had mastered the concepts and which needed reteaching.  I’ll change my plans for tomorrow based on what I learned today.


Mastery Connect — a companion tool to Socrative — takes assessment one step further.  Teachers can develop and deliver more formal assessments with Mastery Connect.  Performance on those assessments are then tracked by student and by standard.  In the first four weeks of my school year, I’ve used Mastery Connect to give two pretests.  The information I’ve collected has helped me to see in advance which skills and concepts my students are likely to struggle with and which skills and concepts that I can skip right over because my students mastered them in previous grade levels.

Remind:  Another one of my professional goals this year is to get my students reading tons of high-interest nonfiction text.  The way I see it, learning to love nonfiction is essential for succeeding in tomorrow’s knowledge-driven workplaces — and learning to love nonfiction is easy in a world where cool things are happening every day.  The hitch:  Students rarely have experiences with high-interest nonfiction text.  Instead, they grind through textbooks or biographies of old people assigned as a part of classroom projects.


So I am using Remind — a service that allows teachers to send out short updates to parents and students — to share one interesting science current event every day.  My students are jazzed by the notion of Megabots, are following the story of the baby pandas born at the National Zoo, and dig Scott Kelly’s Instagram page.

For me, sharing current events is easy. Interested parents and students signed up using a unique class code and chose to receive my updates by text, email or notifications in the Remind app.  My job is simply to find interesting articles and then schedule them either through Remind on the web or the Remind app on my phone.  Given that I am already reading interesting science every day, the entire process takes less than 20 minutes a week to maintain.

The results have been promising.  My students come in almost every day ready to talk about the current events that I am sharing.  They open their devices and poke through past current events during silent reading.  And parents report spending time reviewing the daily current event with their child at home each night.

HSTRY.Co: One of the characteristics that defines scientists is an insatiable curiosity about the world around them.  True scientists are ALWAYS wondering — and then acting on their observations.  The beautiful thing about sixth graders is that they are naturally curious — driven to understand everything around them.  Their wonderings, though, are often lost in the shuffle of a typical day at school.

Take today, for example:  A student in my homeroom was really interested in the fact that she could float easily in salt water at the beach, but that she struggled to float in her neighborhood pool.  She wanted to know why.


To help students capture the questions that leave them curious, I’ve started to experiment with HSTRY.Co — a tool that allows users to create timelines that include text, pictures, audio clips and videos.  What I’m hoping is that because adding content is a one-click process, my kids will regularly record the ideas that leave them completely jazzed and wanting to know more.  Then, I’m hoping that they will return to those ideas during the spare moments that they have either in class or at home.  I see each student’s timeline as a sort of digital science journal.

Can you see the connecting thread between each of my #edtech decisions?

I had a clear sense of an instructional practice — assessing learning, turning students on to nonfiction text, recording the questions that leave us curious — before ever turning to technology.  I didn’t start using Socrative, Mastery Connect, Remind or HSTRY.Co simply because they were cool new tools.  Instead, I started using them because they were cool new tools that faciliated learning behaviors that I believe in.




Related Radical Reads:

Using Remind to Share Nonfiction with my Students

More on Technology is a Tool, NOT a Learning Outcome

I’d Take a Teaching Geek over a Tech Geek Any Day.