Category Archives: Teachers Contribute to the Academic Success of their Students

Read Smarter #1: Developing Kids Who WANT to Read Starts with Filling Your Bookshelves with the Right Titles.

OK, Radical Nation, here’s a simple question for you:  Do you believe that there is a fundamental difference between developing kids who CAN read and kids who WANT to read?

And here’s another question:  Which of those two buckets would YOUR district, school or classroom fall into?  Are your practices and processes around reading instruction sparking a love of reading in kids — or have your practices and processes become so directive and scripted that kids might master the skills necessary to read and then never willingly pick up a book again?

Those ideas have been roiling through my professional circles lately, sparked originally by this Kylene Beers quote:


And this Pete Caggia response:

My guess is that if we asked kids, they’d tell you that they can’t stand reading.  Here’s why:  It’s become the ultimate “carrot v. stick” subject in our schools. 

Everyone — the students in our classrooms and their parents and their teachers and their district level leaders — knows just how high the stakes are when the end of grade reading exam is administered each Spring.

Newspapers and political commentators eviscerate schools with high percentages of struggling readers.  Schools are labeled “Fs”, a scarlet letter that brings with it higher levels of public scorn and external supervision. And educators respond, retaining kids who are struggling with reading — or forcing them into extensive summer remediation programs, or stripping away their elective periods and choice activities to deliver extra interventions when their marks aren’t high enough.

We also respond by turning reading class into a clinical experience.

We teach kids to annotate text and to apply active reading strategies — and then require them to make a thousand annotations every time that they read, and then we grade their annotations, sending the message that the primary purpose of reading is to earn points.  We require kids to dissect every passage, looking for author’s purpose or analyzing word choice or looking for implied meaning.  We sit kids behind computer screens for hours on end, reading prompts and answering questions all in the name of “progress monitoring” — or more insidiously, “personalized learning.”

So how DO we develop a love of reading in our students?

My buddy Pete Caggia — the librarian at my school and the mind behind The Ones We Needed — has convinced me that developing a love of reading in our kids depends on our ability to get the right book into the hands of the right kid at the right time.  Here’s why:  Convincing kids to love reading depends on helping kids to realize that books can change who we are and what we think about ourselves and about others.  They give us chances to see ourselves — and others — in new ways.  They can challenge us and inspire us and reassure us.

And here’s the thing:  No scripted curricula or adaptive computer program can get the right book into the hands of the right kid at the right time, y’all. 

That’s YOUR job — and it’s your unique strength.  YOU know your kids — their needs, their fears, their hopes, their challenges.  And YOU know books — their themes, their characters, their conflicts, their resolutions.  That means with a little deliberate effort, YOU can play matchmaker — recommending a title to a kid that can reignite the love of reading that has been lost as we march students through experiences that sell reading as a skill to be mastered instead of a lifelong practice to be cherished.

To help you, I’m going to start another series here on the Radical called Read Smarter.  

My purpose is simple:  I want to spotlight books that I’m adding to my classroom bookshelf because I know that they are the right title for some of the kids in my classes.  I also want to tell you the stories of the successes that I have — the times when I succeed in changing a child’s view of reading by making the right recommendation at the right time.

And my hope is simple, too:  I hope that some of you will add my recommendations to YOUR bookshelves, too — and work to get those titles into the hands of the kids in YOUR classrooms.  Together, maybe we can turn reading into something that kids love to do again.

So here’s my first recommendation:  I think you should have a copy of All of the Above by Shelley Pearsall on your bookshelves.

It’s often sold as a great STEM read because it tells the fictional story of a group of kids who start a math club that is determined to set a world record by building the largest tetrahedron — but I think that description sells this book short.

 All of the Above is REALLY about is the hopes and dreams and challenges of kids and families that live in high poverty communities — and I know that the kids in my classroom are going to be able to identify with someone in the story.

They may see themselves in James, who lives with his uncle.  He fends for himself a lot because his uncle has to work hard to keep a roof over his head — and he’s heartbroken when he has to move away  unexpectedly because his uncle struggles to pay the bills one month.

Or they may see themselves in Rhondell, who lives with her mother — a nurse that works long days to provide for her daughter and an anchor in her community and for her family.  The stability that she provides for the people around her is an inspiration to everyone — evidence that success is possible in spite of the cards that life may deal you.

Sharice — who remains determined to learn even after spending most of her life hopping from foster family to foster family — may look familiar to some of my students.  Or they may see themselves in Marcel, who has to work after school in his father’s barbecue restaurant in order to help provide for his family.

And for my students who have never experienced poverty, All of the Above might just be the window that they need to better understand the challenges that some of their peers wrestle with on a daily basis.  

I know that it served that purpose for me.  It was Ghost meets Wonder — and it left me determined to never second guess the commitment of the kids in my classroom who come from our toughest communities.

Long story short:  Pick up All of the Above.  I promise you that it will be the right book for someone in your classroom this year.



Related Radical Reads:

A Simple Plan to Make My Love of Reading Transparent to My Students

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

This is Why I Teach:  Real Men Read

A Simple Plan to Make My Love of Reading Transparent to My Students.

Are you ready for something that you may not already know about me, Radical Nation?

While I have been a science teacher for the past ten years, I spent the first fifteen years of my career teaching an integrated language arts and social studies class to sixth graders.  That means I know a thing or two about developing literacy skills in students — even if I haven’t been the primary teacher responsible for developing those skills in my students over the past decade.

And one of the things that I’ve been passionate about for my entire career — regardless of the subject that I’ve been teaching to kids — is making my own reading transparent to the kids in my classroom.  

Silent reading happens in my room two days a week.  I take the students of our team to the media center for circulation time.  I book talk good reads to my kids and have a well-developed classroom library and work hard to get good books into the hands of kids who might not otherwise read anything.  I’ve helped to plan and run parent/child reading groups in our school.

My goal is really a simple one:  I want my students to know that reading is something I value because I want it to be something that THEY value, too.  I also want them to see me — a sports-loving, spastic, full-grown, wide-open dude — as a reader. 

That’s super important primarily because a ton of boys give up on reading in middle school because it’s not always seen as a “cool” thing to do.  The way I see it is that if even one sporty boy decides to keep reading because he knows that Mr. Ferriter does it, too, then I’m winning.

To make my love of reading even more transparent this year, I’m stealing an idea from my friend Pete Caggia:  I’ve created a space on my board where I’m sharing the covers of the books that I’ve already read this year AND the cover of the book that I’m currently reading.  

Here’s what it looks like so far:

(click to enlarge)

There’s nothing fancy about this, y’all.  It’s literally just a bunch of laminated book covers hanging on my board.

The potential in that small corner of board space, however, is HUGE.  I’m sure it’s going to catch the attention of my students because I almost never write anything on the board anymore.  Colorful covers on a blank, white space are bound to make a kid or two curious.

More importantly, every cover and curious kid becomes potential conversation with me.

My hope is that kids of all kinds — readers and non-readers, sporty boys and artistic girls and introverts and extroverts and gamers and makers and swimmers and musicians and straight A students and all C students — will start asking me questions about the titles that I’m reading.

Those questions — “What’s Death Watch about, Mr. Ferriter?  It sounds creepy” , “What’s the best book you read Mr. Ferriter?” , or “Does Etiquette and Espionage have a girl as the main character, Mr. Ferriter?” — are all entry points to the kinds of impromptu discussions that might just convince my students to pick up a book and give it a try.  And even if they don’t pick up a book, every impromptu discussion will reinforce the notion that reading matters — and that people of all shapes and sizes can be energized by something that they’ve read.

So here’s my question for you:  What’s YOUR plan to build a love of reading in your students? 

What are you doing to show them that reading matters as something more than a skill that you learn because you have a high-stakes exam at the end of the school year that you have to pass?  How do you model a love of reading for the kids in your classrooms?



Related Radical Reads:

Using Remind to Share Nonfiction Reading with My Students

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

This is Why I Teach:  Real Men Read


Have We Become Helicopter Teachers?

If you’ve spent any time in the classroom at all, you’ve probably wrestled with more than your fair share of helicopter parents, right?

I know that I have — and every time, I wonder how people who obviously care deeply about their kids can’t see that scripting every action and solving every problem for a child robs them of the chance to develop agency, the single most important skill for functioning successfully in an unpredictable and ultra-competitive world.

Seymour Papert once said it like this:


He’s right, isn’t he? 

What matters most ISN’T raising kids who complete every project, master every concept and earn honor roll certificates during every assembly from kindergarten through high school.  What matters most is raising kids who accept responsibility for setting a direction, accurately evaluating the progress that they are making, and then changing course when necessary.

My guess is that all of this rings true to you, right? 

Everyone knows that helicopter parents really ARE raising children who struggle to act independently.  They DO prioritize immediate success in short term goals over developing lifelong skills that matter.  And that’s BAD.

So lemme ask you a potentially uncomfortable question:  Aren’t WE helicoptering the kids in our classrooms?

If developing students who know how to act when faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared was a goal that we were pursuing, wouldn’t our kids have regular chances to set their own direction in our classrooms — independently identifying meaningful outcomes that are worth pursuing?

If developing students who know how to act when faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared was a goal that we were pursuing, wouldn’t our kids have regular chances to evaluate themselves in our classrooms — drawing conclusions about skills that they’ve mastered and skills that they are struggling to master?

If developing students who know how to act when faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared was a goal that we were pursuing, wouldn’t kids who were struggling to master concepts in our classrooms have regular chances to develop plans for moving forward?

Do those things happen regularly in your classrooms?

(And by regularly, I mean “more often than not.”)


The fact of the matter is that in response to increasing accountability demands, most schools and teachers have become SUPER prescriptive in their work with students. 

We are directors — walking kids rigidly through a daily script called “the required curriculum.”  We clearly state the learning outcomes we are focusing on in each and every lesson.  We progress monitor every kid all the time.  We provide specific interventions whenever we spot an academic weakness.  We provide incredibly detailed reports about what individual kids know and don’t know at any given time.

And truth be told, in a lot of ways, that’s been a REALLY GOOD thing. 

It’s forced both teachers and schools to act in more targeted and specific ways on behalf of their students than we ever did in previous generations.  We are finally accepting responsibility for the results of our work, realizing that our goal isn’t to just TEACH a curriculum, it’s to make sure students LEARN that curriculum.

But I really do worry that we are also creating spaces where students don’t see themselves as capable partners in the learning process. 

The kids in scripted classrooms are almost never active participants in our lessons — identifying meaningful outcomes, monitoring their own progress towards mastery, taking independent action when they struggle.  Instead, they are passive recipients — waiting for someone to tell them what’s important to know and what’s not, waiting for someone to tell them whether or not they’ve mastered important concepts, waiting for someone to tell them how to improve on their weaknesses.

Stated more simply:  Being super prescriptive about what kids will learn and how they will demonstrate mastery is a professional act — but without some kind of meaningful balance, it also strips agency away from the kids in our care, and that’s NOT a good thing.

Any of this make sense?


Related Radical Reads:

What Kind of Students is YOUR School Producing?

Another Generation of Teacher Dependent Learners.

Students v. Learners

Using the CheckMark Extension for Chrome to Reimagine Classroom Feedback Practices

One of the beautiful things about teaching in today’s digitally driven world is that there are literally TONS of tools and extensions that can make good practices more approachable for classroom teachers.

Need an example?  Then check out the CheckMark extension for the Chrome browser.

Once installed, CheckMark makes it possible for teachers to add common comments to Google Docs by highlighting and then clicking one button.

Check it out here:

Can you see how valuable this is?

Classroom teachers spend countless hours giving students feedback on written assignments.  Often, we stop giving specific feedback simply because the process takes too much time, energy and effort to feel worthwhile.  In organizational theory, that’s called a transaction cost — and the simple truth is that core behaviors are almost always abandoned whenever their transaction costs exceed their perceived benefits.

By automating the process of adding common comments to student work products, CheckMark has made it possible for more teachers to give kids targeted feedback in a timely way.  That’s essential — particularly given the important role that targeted feedback can play in moving learners forward.

What I love the best about the CheckMark extension is that teachers can add their own custom comments to the CheckMark extension.

Here’s how:

That’s SUPER important simply because teachers often have unique criteria for scoring individual assignments — and those criteria almost always extend beyond the simple grammar and mechanics issues that CheckMark has preloaded into their extension.

Here’s an example:  I want to see my students add additional wonder questions to the conclusions of every lab report that they write for me.  That’s because wondering is a HUGE part of new scientific discovery.  Those wonder questions, however, need to be clearly connected to the concepts that we are studying in each individual lab.

I often comment on wonder questions that students add to their written products.  I’ll say things like:

  • Great wonder question!  You have me thinking here.
  • Can you make a prediction about your wonder question using data from our lab?
  • What do you think the answer to your wonder question will be?  Why?

I love adding those comments because it shows students how much I value wondering in class — but I hate typing those same comments over and over again while reviewing 120 assignments because it’s time consuming times ten!  CheckMark will make that easier for me going forward because I can easily add them to the extension — and revise them from assignment to assignment as needed.

I haven’t dug too deeply into CheckMark’s abilities yet, but my next step is to see whether or not STUDENTS can use the extension to give feedback to one another.  That would make it even more valuable to me because it could enable more meaningful peer feedback experiences in my classroom — a key step in moving from a culture of grading to a culture of feedback in schools and in helping students recognize that teachers aren’t the only sources of feedback in any classroom.

My guess it that students CAN use CheckMark to give one another feedback as long as they have the ability to add extensions to Chrome through their student logins.

In our district, extensions have to be approved by the district technology team in order to be installed by students — so I may have a few hoops to jump through before I can start using CheckMark for peer feedback.  But jumping through those hoops will be totally worth it because it will increase the quality of feedback that my students can give to one another.

Long story short:  I’m pretty jazzed by the potential that I see in CheckMark.  Any tool that makes it possible to provide more feedback — and more targeted feedback — to my students in less time is a win for everyone. 


Author’s Note:  Want to learn more about the role that feedback can play in the modern classroom?  Check out Creating a Culture of Feedback — the book I recently wrote with Paul Cancellieri.  


Related Radical Reads:

Peer Feedback Matters

The Best Feedback is Gathered, Not Given.

Using Flipgrid to Reimagine Classroom Feedback Practices


Growth Mindset Lessons from a Kids Ninja Fit Class.

I’ve had the chance over the last two weeks to watch my eight year old daughter FINALLY find something that she LOVES to do:  American Ninja Warrior classes at a local gym.

It’s been a joy for me to watch because nothing else that  we’ve introduced her to — baseball, gymnastics, dance, sewing classes — has really resonated.

Now, whether she’s swinging from a set of rings into a sixteen foot cargo net that she has to climb, shimmying across a ten foot rope, or trying to get to the top of a twelve foot warped wall, she’s smiling — even if she falls a handful of times before making it on to the next obstacle.


All of this has caught me by surprise because my kid has never been persistent at learning new skills both in and beyond school.  

Instead, whether she’s learning her multiplication tables, learning to cross-stitch or learning to take a corner kick, she makes a quick decision about whether or not she’s going to “be any good” at the task — and if the answer is no, she gives up because giving up is easier to her than feeling like a failure.

She’s also constantly watching the performances of the people around her — trying to determine where she stands in comparison to her peers.  If she sees that she’s “one of the worst” at whatever task she’s trying to tackle, she goes into what I like to call “full on stall and avoidance mode”.  I remember watching her intentionally let kid after kid cut her in the batting lineup during baseball practice one day — and then celebrating like she’d won the freaking lottery when practice ended before it was ever her turn to bat.


Long story short:  My kid almost always has a fixed mindset.

But there’s nothing fixed about her mindset at Ninja Fit classes.  Instead, she takes a “not yet” approach to every new obstacle, convinced that she has what it takes to move forward even if she’s struggling in the moment. 

Here’s why:

(1). Her coach has designed obstacles that are challenging enough to interest Reece, but are not SO challenging that they feel impossible to her.

Reece and I tend to run early wherever we go.  The result is that we always arrive at Ninja Fit class as her coach is setting up the obstacle course for the day.  As I watch him, I see a master teacher in action because he is constantly adjusting the obstacles that he wants his kids to tackle.

His goal is to design tasks that aren’t ridiculously easy, but also aren’t impossible for kids to complete — and that makes all the difference for my kid.

Because the tasks aren’t ridiculously easy, Reece isn’t ever bored during class.  She WANTS to get through an obstacle because she understands that getting through an obstacle is a real accomplishment.  But because each task is carefully designed in advance to take the current strengths and weaknesses of the students in the class into account, Reece IS getting through obstacles with regularity.  Seeing real progress leaves her convinced that the work she’s being asked to do is really doable for her, too.

Can you see the lessons for classroom teachers here?

If we are going to encourage a growth mindset in our students — particularly in the hearts and minds of the kids who struggle the most in our classrooms — we have to be JUST as deliberate in our task design.  Kids won’t even begin trying if the work we are asking them to do is boring — and worse yet, they will quit believing in themselves if they are never successful.

(2). Her coach is giving her very specific suggestions about how to improve.

I think what I love the most about Reece’s Ninja Fit coach is that he gives her incredibly targeted feedback whenever she is stuck on an obstacle.  Here’s an example:  At open rig time last weekend, she was determined to get up the warped wall.  She tried and failed at least ten straight times before turning to her coach and saying, “Do you have any suggestions to help me get up the wall?”

His response:  “Try smaller steps as you hit the wall, then lean forward and reach with two hands.  The wide steps you are taking are throwing you off balance low on the wall and if you start reaching with two hands instead of one, you will send all of your body’s momentum in the direction that you want it to go.”

That level of specificity blew me away.

Because Reece is eight, I expected him to say something general like, “You are doing great!  Try a little harder and you’ll get there” simply because that kind of generic encouragement is the norm rather than the exception to the rule when adults are giving feedback to kids.  Heck, her baseball coach would say, “Good cut kid!” every time she was up at bat even though she never even came CLOSE to hitting the ball.

What blew Reece away is that she made it to the top of the warped wall a few attempts later because she’d listened to and applied her coach’s feedback.

Think about how powerful that moment was for her:  Not only did she get the exact advice that she needed to accomplish a challenging task, she learned that she could trust her coach to give her the advice that she needs to move forward.  As a result, she’s more than ready to ask for advice — and to then apply that advice — when she’s stuck on a new obstacle.

What’s the lesson for classroom teachers?  Building a growth mindset in struggling students depends on something more than encouragement.  It depends on giving students tangible strategies for improving their performance.

Do we regularly provide that kind of targeted feedback to the kids in our classrooms when they are struggling with a task?  More importantly, have we left the kids in our classrooms convinced that we have the expertise to help them to move forward?

(3). Her coach told her that he believes in her.

At the end of Reece’s first Ninja Fit class, her coach looked right at Reece and told her that he thinks she’s a natural.  “You could be really good at this if you work at it, Reece,” he said.

That was the ONLY thing she remembered from her first class.  “Dad, can you BELIEVE it?” she said a thousand times in the car on the way home.  “Coach thinks I can be really good at this.  That’s AWESOME!”

And it WAS awesome.

My kid — who struggles with her confidence because she’s not a pro at most anything in or beyond school — heard a guy that she looked up to say that she could be GOOD at something.  That simple act sparked a whole new level of confidence and commitment in Reece — to the point where she’s trying things I don’t think she would have ever been willing to try a few months ago.

The truth is that EVERY kid deserves to have adults who believe in them.

So here’s a potentially uncomfortable question for you:  When was the last time that you told a struggling student that you can see their potential?  If the answer is, “I can’t remember,” then you also shouldn’t be surprised when those same students seem to have given up in your classrooms.

Long story short:  Developing a growth mindset in struggling students isn’t an impossible task. 

Instead, it depends on our ability to carefully design lessons with the appropriate level of challenge, our willingness to give specific feedback instead of general encouragement, and our commitment to letting kids know that we believe in them.



Related Radical Reads:

This is What a Growth Mindset Looks Like in Action.

Aliyana’s Mindset Moment.

The Poisonous Mythology of Grittiness.