Podcast #18: Dr. Wanda Cook-Robinson


Dr_Cook_RobinsonDr. Wanda Cook-Robinson is the Superintendent of Oakland Schools. She is an experienced educator with roles that range from classroom teacher to District Superintendent. In 2013, she received Michigan’s Superintendent of the Year award. This year she received the Courage Award for Educational Excellence and Development at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Luncheon.

Dr. Cook-Robinson is passionate about public schools and works tirelessly with the state and with local school districts to provide the best possible education for Oakland County students. In this podcast, she shares her vision for education, and how Oakland Schools works in collaboration with local school districts.

You can listen to the podcast though iTunes or in the window below. You can also download an mp3 file of the interview.

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.  

Developing the Writing Habit

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

the knackWriting instruction has become my favorite part of teaching, though it didn’t always come easily. In the beginning, my own writing was stilted in structure and lacked voice. I wrote what I had been taught, which was a five paragraph essay and a five sentence paragraph. Not only was my writing boring.  The moves I made to create it were not defined enough for students to use as models, except for stilted, formulaic writing that also lacked voice and a sense of ownership.

It also took a long time to produce this writing because I didn’t care about it. I knew I needed to write more and I needed to write things that I cared about. Essentially, I needed to develop my writing habit so I could help my students develop theirs.

The Value in Habit

One summer, while planning for narrative-poetry writing in the fall, I ordered Getting the Knack: 20 Poetry Writing Exercises. Here I found my dream writing. The challenge was to write for one minute without edits for 10 days. I found that after a minute I didn’t want to stop, so many days I didn’t.

I still use this exercise when I am stuck, or when I have more assigned writing than pieces I choose myself. Overall, it helps to clear my brain and return to the habit of writing.

It helps my students, too. They realized the power to clear one’s brain and write every day, as a way to generate topics. It helped my students set goals as well. If I can write 30 words in just one minute, then how many can I expect of myself in 15 minutes?

Using these exercises, my writing models came faster and my voice showed more than before. But my writing was still very one note. I needed some new craft strategies to vary the way I was writing.

So I studied my units of study, in order to really understand the writing skills and moves that I was asking students to use.

Detailed further in my earlier post “My Favorite Writing Strategy,” I also imitated mentor texts. As I have said before, when imitating mentors, you can learn what makes their writing great, but eventually the writing becomes your own. As I wrote in this way, my model texts became excellent mentors for my students. I used skills I asked them to use, and I explained how and why I made those choices. Metacognition became an integral part of my writing progress and the culture of writing in my classroom.

Other Steps to Keep in the Habit

Writing for students may be hard and it may be scary, but as a wonderful mentor told me once, “You only have to write slightly better than your students.” In the end, if we are going to teach writing, then we have to be writers ourselves.

With this in mind, here are a few other strategies that I have used to remain in the habit of writing:

  • Found Poetry. The idea is that you choose any text that is 50-100 words long. From there, you choose 25-50 words. Make a list out of those words, and use only those listed words to create a new piece of poetry. You have the opportunity to add just two words to your list that did not come from the text.
  • 50 Images. Make a list of 50 images. These can be things you see around yourself, like magnets lined up on a refrigerator, or a glass of iced tea with melting ice cubes. Make sure the list is labeled with numbers. Then have a friend choose two random numbers. Using the images on your list that correspond to those numbers, create a piece of writing that includes both of those images.
  • 25 “Because” Statements. Make a list of “because” statements. “Because I am almost finished writing this post,” or “because it is Monday,” and many others. Use these statements as a starting point for writing.

pic 2Amy Gurney (@agurney_amy) is an ELA and Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator for Walled Lake Schools. She has a Master’s degree from Michigan State University in Educational Administration and is currently pursuing an Education Specialist in Educational Leadership at Oakland University. She is a current Galileo Leader. She worked on the MAISA units of study and has studied reading and writing workshop practice and conducted action research.

Get Back Up Again

Notes from the Classroom

cant yetFor the past two years, Loon Lake Elementary, where I teach, has really been trying to elicit a growth mindset in our students. We remind them we can always get better at something, and we need to work hard and not give up. We have been focusing on this in cross-grade-level monthly meetings, called Teams, as well as in individual classrooms.

Having a growth mindset carries over into all aspects of the classroom. Knowing that, here are a few of the growth mindset tools my kids have been exploring this year.

The Power of “Yet”

The word yet is a little easier for my kindergarten students to understand than the phrase growth mindset. When my students say they cannot do something, we always add on the word yet. We then talk about what we can do to get better. This really hits home with them.

We completed a sheet (posted above) about something they cannot do–yet–and what they could do to practice and get better. This elicited some great discussions about, for example, how they might not be able to read a certain book, but that they can read some things. And if they keep working on reading strategies, they will get there.

Class Dojo also has some wonderful videos that open up a great dialogue about having a growth versus fixed mindset. One in particular is about the character Mojo, who wants to give up at school because he isn’t “good” at it. The video chronicles how Mojo’s friends help him learn that in school you can’t give up when you don’t succeed the first, second, or third time.

STEM Lessons

A favorite lesson by all has been “Save Fred.” Fred is a gummy worm whose boat (a small plastic cup) has capsized with his lifejacket (a gummy lifesaver) stuck underneath it. The students are not allowed to use hands but are provided several paperclips to save Fred by getting his lifejacket on.

This lesson really drove home the importance of persevering. Students were extremely frustrated they couldn’t use hands and that the gummy worm was larger than the hole in the lifesaver. They had to keep trying. They also had to learn to work together and communicate ideas well.

We also tried the “Marshmallow Tower” challenge, where they were given twenty spaghetti noodles, one yard of masking tape, one yard of string, scissors, and one large marshmallow. Student groups were asked to create the tallest tower to support the marshmallow at the top of the tower within a time limit of eighteen minutes. This was even more challenging than saving Fred. But we noticed that, with encouragement, students did not give up. However, they were extremely frustrated when towers fell repeatedly.

We decided to bring home the point that while you need to try again, you may need to change up your approach. We also wanted to encourage all group members to participate. So we revisited this same lesson, with the addition of straws and pipe cleaners. We started off discussing what students noticed had or hadn’t worked the first time around. We also talked about how to include everyone. Then we showed students the new materials and challenged them again. They were very excited about the addition of the new materials and came up with creative towers and new ideas. Additionally, they stopped to plan first and gain ideas from all group members, instead of one person trying to take charge.

Lessons from Theatre


The script. Click the image to open a larger version in a new window.

My kindergartners, along with our Second Grade Buddy Class, worked on a growth mindset Reader’s Theatre about Rapunzel, created by Whimsy Workshop. The storyline is about how the Prince comes to save Rapunzel, but when he says let down your hair, Rapunzel has just cut it off. The play reveals how they don’t give up, and that they try other ideas to save Rapunzel. The students loved performing for others, as well as the followup STEM challenge of creating a way to save Rapunzel. This further brought home the point that even if you don’t create something that works the first time, you should tweak it and try again.

Try Everything

I know that this isn’t something we can do all of the time. But if we encourage students to have a growth mindset and keep trying, they’ll be more likely to succeed and enjoy school. If students aren’t succeeding and want to give up, that is when we really need to bring them back to having a growth mindset.

Finally, remind them it’s OK to fail! A wonderful book I recently read and highly recommend, Rosie Revere Engineer, by Andrea Beaty, has a great line: The only true failure can come if you quit. Now more than ever we need to bring that home to our students!

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.