Easing M-STEP Stress

Notes from the Classroom

M-Step-Logo_473059_7While all eyes are on spring break, just behind it lurks the dreaded, gray fog–the time when the use of technology in our building becomes dedicated to one purpose: M-STEP.

Our online standardized testing begins right after we return from a much-needed respite. However, as we are frantically wrapping up our informational unit of study and preparing for parent-teacher conferences, who has time to prep?

Thankfully, most of the “prep” for my students has already happened, thanks to our use of online reading and writing resources. Still, though we’re just two school weeks out, there is much that can be done in terms of online practice.


Early in the year I created an account at ReadTheory for all of my students. This is a great online program that provides students with an experience that is very much like the M-STEP format: students read a passage and answer multiple choice questions.

What I love about ReadTheory is that it is computer adaptive when students pretest. It also gives them an explanation as to why an answer is incorrect. ReadTheory also offers free, printable assessments that can be used in the classroom if paper-and-pencil practice is needed. (Blogger Jianna Taylor describes how Edulastic addresses many of these goals as well.)

Newsela is another great resource for leveled passages. With Newsela, students can read passages online and answer questions. There are abundant resources on this site, which is also searchable by topic and grade level. (For more on Newsela, check out Amy Gurney’s post from 2016 about the site.)

Often, I find inspiration on other teachers’ sites. Mr. Nussbaum is one of them. His site is full of resources, and the reading passages are not only leveled, but they look very much like the screen that students view when taking the M-STEP.

Between these three sites (and in addition to the actual M-STEP prep site) students should be well prepared for the format, and comfortable with reading and answering questions in this online format.


These days, there are many resources available for online writing. Many students at the elementary level are using Google Docs–sometimes even in kindergarten. Other online story creation sites have exploded over the years as well.

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hOne of my favorites–and, for my students, most beneficial–is blogging. Blogging is something we do all year long, but in the spring we also participate in the Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Classroom Challenge. This challenge changes the game because now there are real people–not just teachers and classmates–reading our writing. Students begin to care more about how they write, what they write, and what other people think of their writing.

This lends itself very well to M-STEP. I tell my students to imagine they are writing for their blog audience. The feedback, I tell them, will come from your score. So use everything you know about good writing.

Bottom Line

I am so fortunate to teach in a district that does not place great emphasis on these tests. Our superintendent is very clear that this is one score, on one day, and does not begin to tell the story of who the child is as a learner. We all know that the true “prep” is in the good teaching that we do day to day.

However, ease of use with technology will allow my students to relax and get down to the business of showing what they know, the best that they can. To me, this is the perfect combination.

beth croppedBeth Rogers is a fifth grade teacher for Clarkston Community Schools, where she has been teaching full time since 2006.  She is  blessed to teach Language Arts and Social Studies for her class and her teaching partner’s class, while her partner  teaches all of their math and science. This enables them  to focus on their passions and do the best they can for kids. Beth was chosen as Teacher of the Year for 2013-2014 in her district. She earned a B.S. in Education at Kent State University and a Master’s in Educational Technology at Michigan State University. 



Let’s Talk about Talking

Notes from the Classroom
A view from the author's classroom.

A view from the author’s classroom.

At my school, we have found that by working on oral language confidence, we can help lower-elementary students build up their reading and writing skills. When students are comfortable speaking in front of others, they start to feel more comfortable trying new things or taking risks to build reading and writing skills.

Below are some ways I have incorporated oral language skills into my classroom.

Student of the Week

Each week, one student is chosen to be student of the week. Students have to bring in a poster board decorated with pictures of themselves, family, things they like, and so forth. They present it to the class and talk about each picture.

That week they also bring in a toy and read a book to the class. After each activity, the other students are encouraged to ask questions of the student or share connections.

These activities give the presenters an opportunity to build oral language and presentation skills, in a fun, non-threatening way, since they know a lot about the topic and they choose what they are sharing. It also helps the audience learn to ask questions and practice sharing in front of a group.

Writers Workshop

At the beginning of the year, “writing” lessons focus on oral stories with picture illustrations. The students learn about stories’ components, without focusing on the stressful act of writing. When they have a more solid foundation of letter writing and sound skills, we move into the act of writing.

Most my writing lessons still start with students’ orally telling a friend what they are going to write about–before going off to work. This helps the students completely formulate the thought they want to write about.


An app, Flipgrid, allows students to record videos about "how to" writing.

An app, Flipgrid, allows students to record videos about “how to” writing.

Another idea I recently tried, inspired by an app discussed in this blog post, was to have students present one of our writing assignments using Flipgrid.

My latest writing unit was on “How To” writing. I had the students choose something they wanted to teach someone to do. Then they drew an illustration of each step. Using the illustrations, they each created a video in Flipgrid.

My students were so proud of themselves and loved doing it. And though we could use some video-skills practice, we’ll get there! I am excited to find what other lessons will easily lend themselves to using the app, and I know my kinders are too.

Work Activity Time–AKA Free Choice

I briefly touched on the power of play in a post last year. Play is such an important part of the day, not only because of the creativity that students are allowed to demonstrate, but because of the conversations, problem solving, and pretending they engage in.

In February our school participated for the second time in Global School Play Day (mark your calendars for the fourth annual event, on February 8, 2018). This is a day dedicated globally to promoting the positive aspects of play. On this day, our upper elementary teachers shared how students that never speak out in class were really getting into the games they brought in. The student groups mixed together and brought out shared interests, as they had conversations while playing a game. This was a site to see! Students became more comfortable with their classmates, and in turn more comfortable speaking out in classroom discussions.

Bringing It Home

This year I have been sending home a “choice board” to parents instead of “homework.” It has things on it like, “Write thank you notes for holiday gifts,” “Jump up and down counting by 10s,” and “Read a nonfiction book.” I also added things like, “Go for a walk and talk about the signs of winter you see,” or “Talk about the different animals you see and what you know about them.”

All together, these activities build students’ speaking skills. And in doing so, they help lay the important foundations for students’ reading and writing skills. To get students talking–it’s something we as teachers should keep talking about.

image1Tricia Ziegler (Twitter: @axf96; blog: http://kindergartentreasures.blogspot.com) is a kindergarten teacher at Loon Lake Elementary, in the Walled Lake School District. She is a part of the Walled Lake iCouncil (Instructional Council) team and is part of starting a coding club at her school this year. She is in her eleventh year of teaching, with nine in kindergarten and two in Second Grade. Prior to that she taught in the Walled Lake Great Start Readiness Program, which is a state-funded preschool program for at-risk students. Tricia attended Michigan State University for her undergraduate degree and specialization in Early Childhood. She then attended Wayne State University for her Master’s in Teacher Education.

Excellent Debut Fiction about Detroit

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

american streetWhat’s more fun than reading a book set in a place with which you are intimately familiar? To read about restaurants, buildings, and even street names that you know personally is a small thrill.

Reading a book set in Detroit, my closest “big city,” adds an additional layer of excitement. I’ve lived within half an hour of Detroit for my entire life. I attended graduate school there, and I visit frequently. I have a certain amount of suburban pride for all that the city has to offer–despite never having lived within city limits.

I recently read a fantastic debut YA novel called American Street, which is about a Haitian immigrant who settles in Detroit. It offered recognizable street names and locations that connect me to the city, while showcasing the realities of a daily life that I have never actually experienced.

The Plot

Fabiola and her mother have been planning to leave Haiti for years. But when they finally make the trip, her mother is detained at the U.S. border.

Fabiola is forced to navigate her way to Detroit, and to live with family she has only known over the phone. Her aunt is mysterious and often ill, disappearing into her room for days at a time. Her cousins are legendary. Known around their school as the 3Bs, they strike fear into the hearts of anyone who crosses them.

Fabiola feels most at home with this side of her family, but she also fails to understand the complicated world in which they live. She wants to stay in the U.S. But she also misses Haiti and her mother, about whom no one else seems to share her concern. She’s living at the crossroads of Joy Road and American Street, and she has reached the crossroads in her life as well. Where does she belong?

Why It’s Worth Reading

Fabiola is a sympathetic character, and it’s so easy to relate to her consistent inner conflict. She wants to connect with her family and make new friends, but she can’t help but feel like she’s on the outside, looking in. As a reader, one’s own circumstances may be different, but everyone certainly knows the feeling of being pulled between two strong forces.

Plus, Fabiola opens up the city of Detroit in an entirely new way. She sees it through the eyes of strangers, navigating places familiar to me, but foreign to her. Her perspective of the city is fascinating. While she recognizes that it has many flaws, she draws direct comparisons to her hometown of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, an area which has also seen some struggles and setbacks. Author Ibi Zoboi, through Fabiola, is able to assess the community very matter-of-factly, without melodramatic judgment or the overwhelming historical perspective (a fall from greatness, or rejuvenation after that fall) that is often represented in books about Detroit.

And I have not even mentioned the incredible writing! The language is poetic. Hints of magical realism in the plot evoke a mystical mood. And tons of beautiful metaphors, most particularly with the street intersection of American and Joy, make it clear that this book is something special.

Book Details:
Title: American Street
Author: Ibi Zoboi
ISBN: 9780062473042
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Publication Date: February 14, 2017
Awards and Accolades: five starred reviews before release!
Source: Advanced Reader’s Copy (full disclosure: I received a free galley in exchange for my honest opinion)

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.

Student Portfolios: A Proposal

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_422892943Student portfolios are a buzzword in education right now. The idea isn’t new, as many educators know. What is new is the idea of digital portfolios. Many software companies are jumping on board and offering some user-friendly options, which are perfect for many classrooms and families (these include Seesaw and Sesame).

As a fifth grade teacher, I am focused on providing my students with a tool that they can use and manage independently throughout their school career. Enter Google.

As a district, we use Google for all of our email and applications. Each student has a Google account that is assigned in elementary school, but for which the ability to use email is turned off. Students are still able to use Google Docs and the other applications in their Google Drive, and beginning in kindergarten, they create docs and save them in a folder.

My vision for my students’ portfolios extends beyond this, into a format that I used during my graduate program: a website.

Though this may sound daunting, I actually teach my students how to create a basic website during our informational unit of study. Google allows us to download a template and edit from there. This works extremely well and helps to engage, enhance, and extend student learning. (See Triple E Framework for more information.)

Students are more engaged in the task; the use of technology enhances the learning (takes it to levels paper and pencil could not); and they are more likely to extend their learning beyond the school day. That is, they work on the task at home, when they don’t have to, but want to!

These websites are all shared with the teacher “as owner,” which ensures that anything that may need to be edited can be done quickly, by an adult.

The Vision

If students were taught to create a website for their portfolios, the possibilities would be endless.

Students could have a page for each subject area. There, they could upload their best pieces of writing, pictures of projects, and even videos of presentations and performances. The site could grow with them throughout their school career and into college and/or work applications. Students could easily capture community service and extracurricular activities, with pictures, reflections, and uploaded certificates. The site could be held “in house” to address privacy concerns until the student turned 18.


Theme selection in Weebly. Click to enlarge.

Theme selection in Weebly. Click to enlarge.

Of course, Google is not the only platform students can use. There are many great options out there (Weebly, Wix, and WordPress are a few of the top ones). There would be several factors that would need to be considered for those, including: management (ease for teacher), cost (upgraded sites cost money in order to have certain features), and privacy (having sites as part of a district account allows for greater overview).

Still, no matter what the vehicle, online portfolios increase student agency and have the potential to transform student learning. If our students were constantly thinking about how they could demonstrate and capture their best learning, and they had the power to design and showcase that learning, how powerful would that be?

beth croppedBeth Rogers is a fifth grade teacher for Clarkston Community Schools, where she has been teaching full time since 2006.  She is  blessed to teach Language Arts and Social Studies for her class and her teaching partner’s class, while her partner  teaches all of their math and science. This enables them  to focus on their passions and do the best they can for kids. Beth was chosen as Teacher of the Year for 2013-2014 in her district. She earned a B.S. in Education at Kent State University and a Master’s in Educational Technology at Michigan State University. 

Rooting Myself in “Why”

Notes from the Classroom

sinekIt’s that time of year. Second semester is in full swing. The hope of snow days is waning. And for high school teachers in Michigan, this time of year also means that assessment season is quickly approaching.

We, as teachers, often struggle with how to best prepare our students for high-stakes assessments like the SAT. No one likes to teach to the test, but we also recognize its importance both for our schools and for our students, and we want to see our students achieve success. So, how do we find that balance?

To answer that question, I’ve come back to a favorite resource of mine, Simon Sinek’s “golden circle.” In this TED talk, Sinek argues that, in order to inspire change, we must “start with ‘why.’” To prepare my students for success on the SAT, I’m starting by rooting my practice in “why.”

As a teacher, questions are our job. In this case, I’d argue that “why” is the one that we should return to with consistency–both in planning and in instruction.

Here are a few questions that I’m trying to integrate into my daily instruction.

1. Why do you say that?

In daily instruction, this question can inform me and help guide my instruction. If students have an answer, but it sounds like they might not quite have the understanding that they need, I’ll ask this question. It illuminates their thinking and identifies where I need to redirect.

If they are on the right track, this question can extend thinking to the next level of supporting analysis with evidence. This type of question even appears on the SAT.

2. Why might this author…?

You could finish this question in a lot of different ways:

Why might this author include these details?

… use this particular word?

… start her essay like this?

… structure her paragraphs in this way?

… write this in the first place?

These questions help to make that ever-important connection between reading and writing. And they help to make a habit of analysis, which is a crucial skill on the redesigned SAT both in multiple choice and essay sections.

3. Why are we doing this?

shutterstock_373931644We’ve heard this question a million times from our students, and it’s an important one. If our purpose is to more authentically teach students to write by studying the craft of mentors, then we should make sure our texts and our writing are aligned, and that we are asking these questions when it makes sense to do so.

There’s a very real human element to the craft of writing, and we can’t forget that. Here, we’re asking “why” with the lens of what we, as writers, can learn from these mentors.

The same question can be asked of test prep. If you teach juniors, you might be especially frustrated this time of year that your unit work gets eclipsed by frequent practice tests. Again, it would be worth asking, “Why are we doing this?”

The biggest advantage to giving practice exams (and I’m talking full-test- or whole-section replicas of the test) is to expose students to the format, the wording, and the nuances that come with different tests. Yes, of course this is important, but it shouldn’t trump good instruction.

If the goal is to practice a format, wouldn’t that be most effective within our good instruction in manageable chunks? Or by assessing in a variety of formats–including those that will give our kids exposure to the wording and format? If we’re replacing a lot of our valuable class time with practice tests or are letting them drive our curriculum, we should step back and re-ask ourselves “why?”

Rooting our practice in “why” through planning and instruction can help us make the necessary shift from surface-level understanding to purposeful, thoughtful analysis. And if this is done throughout the year and beyond just the typical “test-prep” time of year, it can shape our students in ways far more meaningful than just preparing for a score.

MKortlandt2Megan Kortlandt (@megankortlandt) is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches Language Arts at Durant High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Additionally, Megan works with Oakland Schools as an instructional coach for AARI. She has presented at various conferences including the Michigan Council for Teachers of English and Michigan Reading Association annual conferences

When to Pull Back Writing Support

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_426591961James was spread out on one of the counters, with all his papers and materials circling his laptop. He smiled as I approached.

“So I heard you are starting over,” I said.

“Yeah. I found stronger evidence for this prompt,” James said. (The student’s name has been changed for the sake of this post.)

“That’s really thoughtful of you. Great writing move!”

We talked through his planning ideas and how he was going to use his evidence, and he shared with me some specific examples of how in his bioethics essay he would defend the use of GMOs.

After we were ready to wrap up our conference, I remarked, “You know, I don’t think you really are going to need our support much this semester.”

Moving Beyond Support

As an MTSS interventionist, it can be challenging to know when a writer is ready to move past support. This year, I was hired by my district to coordinate academic interventions for students whose data reveal that they have a skills deficit. In particular, I work closely with Tier Two and Tier Three students to develop content literacy skills. I began working with James a month into the school year, coordinating support in his U.S. History class, then his Biology class.

With James, I observed his growing independence when he showed me that he was thinking carefully about his writing. When writers are given opportunity to talk about their writing, it allows for us to assess what they need most to move forward. And since I only see my students periodically for support in and out of their classes, it’s these conversations that drive everything I do to support a developing writer.

So what do I look for most in a writer when I am deciding to pull back support? Intentional thought and active engagement. Does it mean that students won’t need an occasional conference to lead them to clearer drafts or prompt them to consider new ideas? Absolutely not. But when writers can explain their process, explain their thinking, and explain why their choices matter, it’s time to let go. The best writing lessons are born out of risk, and students won’t take those risks if they are waiting for our stamp of approval.

Letting go can be scary, but it need not be abrupt. Building an instructional practice around dialogue allows for gradual reduction of support. Conversation is vital because it helps teachers to identify what kind of support an underperforming writer still needs. Moreover, conversation sniffs out a mismatch between perception and skill, leading the way to targeted feedback and more.

Intentional Positioning

When I told him he didn’t need me, James looked surprised.


A big smile stretched across his face, followed by his quickly agreeing. James knew he was ready too, but he needed an affirmation.

Years ago when I first began working with resistant and underperforming writers, I came across a theory on positioning. Positioning theory supports the idea that social interactions create identities, and these identities are fluid. As a result, educators have the power to reposition a student’s identity in negative or positive ways.

When I sat down with James to conference about his biology paper, I saw how his posture changed the moment I remarked that he wouldn’t be needing my support much longer. Our conversation revealed to James that there was a mismatch between how he felt as a writer and his actual skill level. Changing a student’s perception about himself alone can raise achievement in an underperforming student, and intentional positioning is the final and arguably most important phase of the intervention process. Students have to accept the good we see in them.

The final proof that James was ready to move beyond my support occurred when James’ English teacher told me how she watched him independently and proficiently compose a response to Fahrenheit 451. When I told James that his teacher had positive feedback on his writing, he proceeded to tell me his thoughts on Fahrenheit 451, his assigned novel for English 9. We had a brief but rich conversation about Montag’s dysfunctional relationship with his wife, and just how timely the classic dystopian novel is for 2017. Here, giving his voice value positioned James to fully take on the behaviors of a strong reader and writer.

Without prompting, James was independently making meaning and composing on his own. He knew enough to quit an essay that didn’t yield compelling evidence. His genuine responses about a complex text reflected his growth and development as a reader and writer.

And our conversation made clear that it was time for me to let go. So I did.

laurenLauren Nizol (@CoachNizol) is an MTSS Student Support Coach and Interventionist at Novi High School. She has eleven years of classroom experience, teaching English, IB Theory of Knowledge and English Lab. Lauren completed her undergraduate degree in History, English and Secondary Education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and her Masters from Eastern Michigan University in English Education. She is a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant with the Eastern Michigan Writing Project and an advocate for underperforming students and literacy interventions.  

Empathy Through Research Writing

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_426313705As my students work through the Extended Research Argument unit from the National Writing Project, we’re having really good conversations about the issues they’re interested in, and we’re doing a lot of thinking about evidence.

Most recently, we’ve considered viewpoints that don’t align with our own. We’re at a point where they’ve looked at what is being said about their issues, and are trying to write sympathetic, fair statements that sum up what they’re seeing from people holding different viewpoints.

This is a shift from the way I’ve taught this in the past. Before, of course I taught my students about making concessions and why that’s an important move. The good reason: making a concession shows your reader that you understand the issue’s complexity, and that you’re not a fanatic. The bad reason: The Big Test you’re going to take won’t give you a high score without one.

I taught, and maybe thought, about argument as a contest–and so they did too. But what’s coming out of this new work is some real empathy, something I mostly ascribed to fiction reading. I’m thinking that empathy and fairness are traits that are lacking and in need of teaching.

Cultivating Empathy

Fiction maybe lets us experience what another person experiences and feels, but I don’t know a way to require that, or how a student might demonstrate empathy in the kinds of writing we do. Our research-argument project, though, requires it. Students write a statement from the opposing viewpoint that’s fair, and which someone holding that viewpoint would agree with.

Here’s a sample of what all of this has lead us to:

An African-American student, male, tells me his peer reviews don’t think he’s being entirely fair while representing the opposing viewpoint. He writes about police use of force when dealing with communities and individuals of color. He’s not sure he knows how to keep his own bias out of the writing, and how could he?

What’s great about the conversation is that he genuinely wants to be fair because he knows he can make a good argument. He doesn’t want his bias to undermine that. We talk and I read what he’s written. We decide that he’s going to be honest about who he is, and that his next step is to think about whom he wants as his audience.
Whom does he most want to speak to and what might that look like? This young man has little motivation to seek empathy with people who see him as a threat, but because he wants his argument to be taken seriously he’s going to work hard on that empathy piece.

Another young man announced to the class that his issue was raising the minimum wage, because “only losers work for minimum wage–McDonald’s money–and they don’t deserve more.” But now he sits, sharing statements about the opposing viewpoint that contains references to living wages and other topics he hadn’t thought about. His own point of view shows growth and empathy and an understanding of the complexity of his issue. His “only losers” claim is gone, replaced by one that show nuance.

shutterstock_278574116Not all the conversations go this way. But enough of them do that I take notice. Is my thinking about empathy and how to get it wrong? I’m also worried that some of these students will slip back into “a prove my point/win the argument” mindset, but I am encouraged.

I sat today and looked through my social media feeds. I didn’t see much empathy, didn’t see anyone trying to sympathetically represent the opposing viewpoint. Is that what we’re up against? A genre that only tries to “win” and never understand?

I thought about my students’ projects. In the last step they are going to produce a piece of civic writing that hopefully achieves their purpose. We’re going to talk about op-eds and petitions, speeches and letters. But I’m afraid that their efforts will get lost in the myopic howling noise of their Twitter feeds and Instagrams and Snapchats. I’m also struggling with how to capture and reward–if that’s the right word–these students for their thinking.

Still it’s a good start.


RICKRick Kreinbring (@kreinbring_rick) teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.

International Settings Fill Contextual Pools

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

city of saints and thievesI’ve had frequent conversations about contextual pools lately. I hear more and more of my colleagues speaking about the challenges that arise in teaching their subject matter when the contextual pool of the students is so limited. That is, when our students have very little background knowledge on a subject, it is very difficult for them to learn new material or to garner any interest in doing so.

I found myself wondering about my own contextual pool and quickly realized that, like so many aspects of my identity, it is largely constructed and filled by my reading. When I consider my knowledge of a concept with which I have no personal experience, I recognize that my understanding or appreciation was gleaned from a book–and often a novel.

But in a novel, when all aspects of the settings, culture, and people are new, I can’t help but feel that I’m gaining a sliver of awareness about that world. My contextual pool is expanding.

I recently read City of Saints & Thieves, by Natalie C. Anderson, a YA suspense novel set in Africa that offered exactly this experience.

The Plot

Tina’s been plotting her revenge for the last four years. Her mother was murdered and Tina knows exactly who committed the crime.

She joins the Goondas, a gang in her town of Sangui City, Kenya, and with their help, she vows that she will take the murderer’s money, then his power, and finally, his life. On the night that she sneaks into his house to enact her plan, everything goes wrong and Tina finds herself caught by Michael, the killer’s son who swears that his father is innocent. He convinces Tina to give him a few days to figure out the truth behind the murder and, in doing so, opens a door to a past full of secrets, lies, and a family history that she never knew existed.

Why It’s Worth Reading

Some really excellent books set in African have been written in the last few years. Still, American publishers tend to publish works set in the United States. And if we branch out to other countries, it is much more common to find European settings than those on any other continent.

It’s fantastic to leave the familiar settings behind and explore a completely new part of the world with these characters. Plus, this book was an absolute page-turner! I was totally gripped by the mystery behind Tina’s family, her mother’s initial move from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to Kenya, and her complicated relationship with the wealthy and powerful Greyhill family.

Anderson does an incredible job of connecting the setting (particularly the DRC) to the story, and interweaving culture and history with the characters, as they journey to unearth the truth. My contextual pool steadily filled as I read about politics and corruption in countries with ever-changing leadership, as well as the daily events of communities engulfed in war. Reading about such events adds one more layer of value to this text–I found myself awash in gratitude that I live in a place that, despite its faults, is relatively safe, secure, and prosperous. New knowledge, an exciting plot, and feelings of gratitude combine in one book that is truly worth your time.

Book Details:
ISBN: 9780399547584
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: January 24, 2017
Awards/Accolades: 4 starred reviews only three days after its release
Source:  Advanced Reader’s Copy (Full disclosure: I received a free e-galley in exchange for my honest opinion.)

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.

Communicating with Parents

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

CommunicationI’m having a really hard time with the fact that I will not be in the same place as my daughter when she is in preschool, even though I know that parents before me have done this. I won’t have a shared experience. I will not be privy to that part of her life.

As we’ve been looking at different schools, one of the metrics I find myself using to measure whether I like a school or not is how the teacher and school communicate with parents. So when I asked one teacher, “How do you communicate with parents?” and she answered, “Well, there’s conferences,” I was a little freaked out. Just to be clear, if you are waiting until conferences to talk to parents about their child, you are waiting too long.

As a middle school Language Arts teacher, I have re-prioritized my list of things I must do as a teacher, and elevated parent communication as one of my top three things. (The other two are: build personal relationships with students, and model reading and writing for my students.) Communication is a fundamental part of a teacher’s livelihood. I understand this better as my child is making her way into school.

As a parent, I will want to know what my child did in school, if anyone was mean to her or vice-versa, and what she did that was admirable or that needs work. In the beginning, I will want to see glimpses of what happens in the classroom–so that I can “be there” and know the routines, and have the language of the class, so that I can draw more out of my daughter in our conversations about school.

A Question of Frequency

Each fall, I go into the school year with lofty plans to call or email every student’s parent or guardian within the first month of school, with a positive, thoughtful comment that would demonstrate how I got to know their child–and which would also give me some leeway if I needed to contact them later in the year for an issue or concern. The years I met my goal, I needed some planning and dedication. One thing that worked was writing the names of four to eight students a day in my planner so that I would have them in my mind for each hour. That way, I could try to write or say something specific about the student’s participation in my class that day.

How often should a teacher communicate with parents and what do parents want to hear about? As students get older, do parents want to know different things? How much is too much? Which forms of communication (texts, phone calls, emails) work best for parents? How can I best manage showing glimpses of my classroom while respecting any anonymity requested by parents or students?

These are all questions that I’m pondering as I think about communication in my classroom. In the past, I haven’t really had a definite plan, just a few things that I did that fall under communication:

  • Weekly email to parents, describing key topics covered in class and any big projects or papers
  • Daily emails with homework to specific parents that requested this
  • Daily or weekly updates to Moodle with homework and “today in class”
  • A blog with student work and classroom photos (some years)
  • A blog with links and resources for students and parents to use (other years)

Technology should help make communicating with parents easier. There are tons of platforms, like Moodle or Weebly, that offer a way for you to easily communicate with parents/guardians. Mainly, I want to use something that is easy for me to update and easy for parents to access.  

Photo Jan 27, 9 46 39 AM

Welcome board at Pierce Elementary School with a calendar for parents and guardians to sign up to volunteer in the preschool classroom.

One area that I haven’t tapped into, but that I really liked in my visits to preschools, was how teachers invite or welcome parents and guardians into their classrooms. I know that this might look different in varying grade levels, but I really liked the schools that offered some way for me to be able to come into the classroom if I wanted to. Just by having this option available, it gave me a sense that this teacher was confident and capable.

Not only would I like to invite parents into my classroom to help out with preparing materials or bulletin boards, but I would like to have them come in for classroom celebrations of writing. Another thing to consider is how to engage parents and guardians of low-income students or English Language Learners.  

I’d like to be more deliberate in my plan for communication, so here’s my list of what a comprehensive communication plan for parents and guardians should include:

  • A survey or initial email that invites parents and guardians to share their concerns or hopes for their child in the coming school year
  • An invitation for parents and guardians to come visit your classroom in some way
  • A way for parents and guardians to know what is happening in your classroom
  • A place where students can share their work for a wider audience, including parents and guardians
  • Resources for parents and guardians who are looking for ways to support their students in your subject or grade
  • A calendar of important due dates and classroom events
  • Ideas for connecting with parents and guardians throughout the year

Parents want teachers who are accessible and transparent, so what is your plan for communicating with parents on a regular basis? Post your ideas in the comments below or on social media.

blog preschoolCaroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for twelve years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent literacy consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She has a BA in English from Michigan State University and a Masters in the Art of Teaching Reading from Oakland University. She lives in Berkley, Michigan with her husband and their three year old daughter.

Misreading Readers

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_561669964My youngest daughter is a wonderfully spunky first grader whom people often call “headstrong,” using that tone that suggests they’ll make sure and say a prayer for me later.

People make those casual remarks and we all have a good laugh, and I quietly cross them off the family Christmas card list. Just kidding. They’re right about her and I’m glad for it. She knows what she likes and doesn’t like, and she’ll never waste a moment of her life letting someone else tell her how to live it.

All of this is to say that she gave me a heart attack a couple nights ago when she announced at bedtime, “I don’t like reading.” I challenged her immediately by pointing out that she’s constantly reading Mo Willems books and Dog Man and all sorts of graphic novels.

Which led to this exchange:

“No, daddy, I don’t like reading THESE books,” Taylor said, tossing her bag of leveled-reading books at me in disgust. These are books she brings home at least a couple times a week to help make sure she’s reading in the right difficulty range and to help her continue growing. They’re good at that job, I think, but they’re about as interesting as potato salad.

“Oh. Buddy, those are to help you get better at reading! They don’t have to be your favorites,” I said.

Her response: “I don’t like them and I’m not reading them anymore.”

We eventually talked things out. But not before the episode got me thinking about Taylor as a future student in high school, and by extension, my own current students.

Willful Reading and Forced Reading

I suddenly imagined Taylor as the sort of student I see all the time–the type who lights up conversations and writing assignments when a text catches her fancy. Passionate about their favorite readings, these kids are equally passionate about their hatred for what they consider forced labor–any assignment related to a text they aren’t into.

No sooner did this “nightmare” occur to me than I realized my hypocrisy. I LOVE these sorts of students. They’re unwilling to “play school” but are more passionate–and much more knowledgeable–than students who do the work without slowing down to consider the value of anything beyond a grade.

shutterstock_568776415There are lots of conversations to be had about this intersection of student interest and assessment. But let’s come back to my daughter for a second. Imagine her ten years from now. Or just look around your own classroom and pick the half dozen or so kids this description fits: She continues to love a good book when someone hands it to her, but she shrinks from most of what a teacher assigns, assuming wearily that it’s more literature that someone else has decided has value–or is being used to test her. If she’s learned to “do school” then she’s compliant but uninterested. If she decides that there are better things to do than complying with assessments, then maybe she’s taking a pass on most of what’s handed to her in an English class.

Taylor will be fine–she has two teachers for parents and a reading-centered household. I worry more about the students I have in class now. How often do we give them opportunities to demonstrate their skills as readers and writers, unshackled from the separate (much less useful) skill of compliance?

Our curriculum’s standards help expose students to seminal works of literature, but we are often slow to recognize that analytical reading and genre exploration are absolutely NOT tied to those same texts. If a student is reluctant to engage with Shakespeare or Krakauer, have we accurately assessed their reading abilities when we write them off, based on an effort we know wasn’t indicative of them as readers?

Balance for the Forced

It would be enormously insulting of me to suggest that you should build alternative assessments for your entire gradebook to accommodate students who haven’t learned to tow the line sometimes. But I think sometimes there’s also room for balance: If one opportunity to demonstrate annotation skills presents itself during The Great Gatsby, a standards-based alternative might be fairly easy to build with Flipgrid or a quick conference about a scene from a student’s independent reading. If they’re reading books that are Lexile-appropriate (or complexity appropriate, if you’re measuring implicit meaning), then their ability to perform on the text they’re attached to should overshadow however they perform on the task related to a class reading.

This idea can be a tough pill to swallow. Many of us got into this profession due to a love for the classics and the notion that we are laying the foundations of culture in our English classrooms. Yet for every one of us who fawns over Faulkner, there’s another of us who never quite figured out why Salinger was such a big deal.

If a student in high school has the fundamentals down–if she can read a grade-appropriate text and tell you the tone and the mood and tie it to current events and posit motives for the main characters’ decisions–then we should be much more worried about how to get all of those A-plus students who never pick up a pleasure book to follow her lead and learn the value of reading itself.

Michael Ziegler
Michael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. 
He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.