Category Archives: Teachers Establish a Respectful Environment for a Diverse Population of 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

Here’s What “Maintaining Classroom Discipline” Looked Like in 1947.

A few weeks back, my buddy Michael Parker West shared a 1947 McGraw Hill instructional video on maintaining classroom discipline in his Twitterstream.

Check it out here:

Pretty crazy, right?!

If you can get past the fact that there is absolutely no diversity in the model classroom — something that would have been common in the segregated classrooms of 1947 — there’s a ton of meaningful lessons about classroom management in this video.

Here’s what MPW spotted:

– Talk *to* students, not at them
– Strive for trust, not control
– Discipline ≠ punishment

Here’s my main takeaway:   Teachers have to be ready to accept responsibility for student misbehavior and/or academic struggles.

All too often, we go full on “Mr. Grimes” — blaming poor marks or poor behavior on laziness or lack of interest.  That flawed, y’all — built from the notion that the primary responsibility for student learning and engagement rests with the kids in our classrooms.

Professional educators recognize, however, that academic struggles and student misbehavior are often a function of crappy lesson design or uninspired school spaces. 

When kids don’t master a concept, they work to identify common misconceptions and then address those misconceptions in new lessons. When kids under-perform compared to students in other classes, they study the instructional practices used by their peers in order to become better educators.  When kids seem disengaged or disrespectful, they reflect on the steps they can take to build a classroom culture where respect is an expected norm.

Now, don’t get me wrong:  I’m not saying that every student struggling with academics and/or behavior is “the fault” of the classroom teacher. 

We’ve all taught kids who needed academic or behavioral help that goes far beyond what teachers are trained to provide — and we are all working within constructs that really do leave our hands tied sometimes.  Need an example:  Sometimes, I feel like direct instruction is the only way I can get through the huge curriculum I’m responsible for teaching.  That bores my students — but I don’t know if I have any other choice given that getting through the curriculum is an expectation I’m held accountable for.

But I AM saying that the bulk of the behavior problems and academic struggles that I see in my own room are because my lessons are boring or I’ve forgotten to build strong relationships with each of my students.

Stated more simply:  Check yourself when your kids are struggling in class.  Maybe there’s something that YOU can do to create more successful learning experiences for your students.  Bare minimum, blaming kids isn’t going to get you anywhere.


Related Radical Reads:

Five Lessons for the Student Teachers in Your Lives

Three Classroom Management Tips for New Teachers

More Thoughts on Classroom Management

This is Why I Teach: Long Days. Lots of Smiles.

So I’m beat. 

Got to school at 4 AM this morning to start setting up for a special event that I’ve been planning for my students for the past two months — a Water Balloon Launch and Hot Dog Picnic.

It’s part of an in-house field trip that I promised my team as a reward for how hard they worked on a recent PTA fundraiser.  I wanted them to know that I was grateful for the support that they had shown our school.

Aaron Burden

And it took a TON of time and effort. 

Not only have I spent the last few weeks building water balloon launchers, developing instructional materials to turn the experience into a lesson on variables and constants in a science experiment, buying sodas and hot dogs, arranging for coolers and ice to be sent in, and finding volunteers to help me grill, I had just under 3,000 water balloons to fill!

(Pro Tip:  Bunch-o-Balloons are LEGIT.)

At times, it felt like a grind.  

Whether it was the endless trips to the hardware store for more lumber, the constant tinkering with launcher design, or the stops at every grocery store in town looking for vegetarian hot dogs, I was definitely worn out and wondering whether all of this effort was worth it.

But today was amazing. 

My kids were curious and kind and cooperative all day long.  They shared ideas and resources with one another.  They made sure that everyone got to take turns using the launchers that I built.  They picked up every single water balloon piece littering our football field when we were done —  and volunteered for every cleanup task that I needed help with.

For the first time in weeks, they were at ease — with one another and with the work that we were doing.  There was no angst or stress or boredom today.  Just happy kids having fun with each other and with me and with the task that we were completing together.

But the best part is that they laughed. A lot. They ran and they hopped and they skipped and they flossed, and they LAUGHED. Watching them made me joyful. It was impossible not to smile.

I needed that, y’all.

For a TON of reasons, education just hasn’t been fun for me lately.

But today was a blast. 

A tangible reminder that if I can push all the crap aside — the ridiculous policies that I can’t control, the paperwork that seems pointless, the public criticism of our profession that is more prevalent than ever before — I can still create experiences that my kids will remember for a long, long time.

This  is why I teach.  


Related Radical Reads:

This is Why I Teach:  Powerful Goodbyes.

This is Why I Teach:  Individual Moments Matter

This is Why I Teach:  They are Learning from Me

How Does YOUR School Build Belonging?

I think most teachers know that building belonging — a sense of community between the kids in your classes or on your hallways or in your school — is essential to creating the kinds of spaces where genuine learning really happens.  That’s nothing new, is it?

Church of the King

What IS new is the incredibly lonely world that we are all living in.

Consider these stats, which I found in a recent Fast Company article on the community building efforts of the biggest brands:

That’s shocking stuff, right?  

But it resonates.  I’d identify myself as lonely, I think we live in a world with far less empathy than necessary, and I don’t know or trust my neighbors.  And my guess is that many of my students and their families would fit in the exact same categories.

Which makes the community building efforts of individual teachers and entire school faculties even MORE important.  

Human beings are inherently social creatures.  We thrive on connections.  We thrive on belonging.  Our happiness depends on it.  As Sebastian Junger wrote in Tribe:

“We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding–tribes.This tribal connection has been largely lost in modern society, but regaining it may be the key to our psychological survival.

“Whatever the technological advances of modern society – and they’re nearly miraculous – the individualized lifestyles those technologies spawn seem to be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.”

Schools — along with churches and other community service organizations — really ARE perfectly suited for developing the kind of tribal connections that are “the key to our psychological survival.”  

Need proof?

Then check out the recommendations that Fast Company author Sebastian Buck gives to the brands that he advises:

Although there are some examples of highly engaged communities being developed via technology (e.g., Peloton riders), when it comes to belonging, real connection will most likely come from in-person interaction in real life. But having physical space is not enough: Brands should create spaces, experiences, products, and services that deliberately foster the conditions for diverse people coming together in respectful environments for shared experiences.

Now let me rewrite that for you:

But having physical space is not enough.  Schools should create spaces, experiences and services that deliberately foster the conditions for diverse people coming together in respectful environments for shared experiences.

Are you doing that in your communities?

If not, you should be.  The simple truth is that if we are deliberate , we can be so much more than the place where kids go to get an education.  We can be the place where diverse families come together to BELONG.

That matters, y’all.




Using Flipgrid to Reimagine Classroom Feedback Practices

So here’s a simple — albeit surprising — truth about Bill Ferriter:  I’m actually a tech skeptic. 

I’m NOT the guy who is jumping on every new digital bandwagon from day one, trying to be the first to figure out how the “hot new tool” can be used in my classroom.  In fact, when I see teachers flipping out about a new service in social spaces like Twitter, I bristle — questioning whether their enthusiasm is because the tool facilitates good teaching and learning or whether their enthusiasm is a function of following the fads.

That’s why I’ve resisted even giving Flipgrid — a service that facilitates video based reflections and connections between students and teachers — a look.

Buried in Flipgrid Tweets that seemed to celebrate “making videos” over “engaging in meaningful demonstrations of mastery,” I assumed that Flipgrid was just another tool that teachers were excited about because it was new — and there’s nothing that I hate more than deciding to integrate new technology into the classroom just because “the kids might like it” or “everyone else is doing it.”

I don’t need #flipgridfever.  I need tools that support the kinds of practices that I believe in.

But I started tinkering with Flipgrid this week — using it to create a space where my students can reflect on and wonder about the parts of flowering plants — and I’ve become convinced that it can play a meaningful role in my classroom.

Here’s why:  Flipgrid allows me to redefine what “assessment” can look like in my classroom.

Each video recording that my students make lets me see what they know about the content that we are studying in class in the same way that small conversations and interactions allow teachers to assess the progress that students are making towards mastery.  The difference is that I now have a tangible artifact that I can use as a record of those individual conversations.

That’s valuable.

Just as valuable, however, is that Flipgrid has allowed me to have MORE of those small conversations and interactions with students.  The simple truth is that with 35 kids in every class and 120 kids on my team, I just can’t have meaningful assessment conversations with every kid, every day.

But because student responses are recorded in Flipgrid and I can return to them later — during my planning period, when I’m sitting on the couch at night staring at my phone, over the weekend — those interpersonal interactions become more frequent for more students.

What I love the BEST about Flipgrid, though, is that it allows me to redefine what “feedback” looks like, too — and that’s something I’m incredibly passionate about.  

After watching each video, I can record a short reply commenting on the thinking students shared.  I can challenge misconceptions that I see, celebrate mastery, ask interesting questions, and show that my own thinking was pushed by something that my kids shared in their recordings.

That’s SUPER powerful, y’all.

The sad truth is that in most schools, students hesitate to share their thinking publicly because they feel like they are being evaluated in every interaction.  That’s because the pattern of feedback in classrooms has always been “I make a contribution, the teacher examines my contribution, and the teacher rates me.”

But every interaction that I have with students in Flipgrid gives me the chance to reinforce the notion that feedback ISN’T about evaluation.  Instead, feedback is about giving learners chances to polish their ideas and their skills without risk.

I also hope that over time, I’ll be able to get students to start giving each other feedback on their video responses.  That’s for a practical reason:  When students rely only on teachers for feedback, the amount of feedback that they actually receive will always be limited.  If we can teach students to reliably look to one another for feedback, they should have tons more chances to have their thinking challenged.

More importantly, when peer to peer feedback is done well, it creates a trusting classroom environment where kids know that they can take intellectual risks in front of one another without fear of ridicule or embarrassment.  Flipgrid could facilitate that trusting environment by providing tangible evidence to every kid that their thinking will be met with supportive — instead of critical — responses by the peers they are sitting alongside in each and every classroom.

Here are two tech takeaways:  

Flipgrid is incredibly easy to use:  Seriously.  Like amazingly easy to use.  Teachers can create forums — which Flipgrid calls “Topics” — for student reflection that are public or private, moderated or not in minutes — and after sharing the link to individual topics, students can record short video responses with just one click.

In my classroom — stocked with dozens of Chromebooks that I’ve purchased over the years — those responses are done most frequently using the webcams on our computers.  Some students have also put the Flipgrid app on their own phones and tablets to make “recording on the go” easier.

Regardless, no usernames and passwords are required and the technology has worked without any fails or flaws for the entire week. That kind of consistency and approachability make Flipgrid a tool that can be adopted by any teacher or group of students without any learning curve at all.

Flipgrid’s free version is good.  It’s paid version is better:  Flipgrid has two pricing options — Flipgrid One and Flipgrid Classroom.  Flipgrid One is free and allows teachers to do a TON of cool stuff with kids, but has some limitations.

The first limitation that caught my eye was that the landing page for a teacher’s topic boards can’t be customized — think “” versus “”.  That may seem like a small detail, but anyone who has ever struggled to point kids to web based resources knows first-hand the headaches that come from complicated web addresses.

The second limitation that caught my eye is that Flipgrid One allows students to post new reflections, but does NOT allow them to reply to the reflections of their classmates.  Given that I want kids interacting with one another — not just me — in social learning spaces, that’s a big deal.  The “trusting environment where peer feedback is just as important as teacher feedback” that I describe above isn’t possible with Flipgrid’s free account.

So I ponied up $65 for Flipgrid Classroom — which feels like a reasonable price for the extra features that I now have access to.

Long story short:  I’m adding Flipgrid to my bag of classroom tools. 

Not because it’s a hot new tool, but instead because it allows me to easily redefine and reimagine what “feedback” and “assessment” can look like in my classroom.


Related Radical Reads:

Do Your Technology Investments Advance Your Priorities?

Technology is a Tool.  Not a Learning Outcome.

Note to Principals:  STOP Spending Money on Techology