I Don’t Know How To Do It…But I’m Going To Do It Anyway

I thought about starting a Maker Club in my school last year. I figured it would be interesting to get a group of kids together to make stuff.

So, like a good student, I did some research about how to start a club. What I found was a wide variety of different resources, most of which completely overwhelmed me. Every website had some kind of material I didn’t have or some technology tool I couldn’t access. Many of them had entire rooms called Maker Spaces, while my school has portable classrooms parked behind our school to help with overcrowding.

Learning more about Maker Clubs made me not want to start one. I was completely swamped with information. I gave up.

This year, however, I’m going for it. I don’t have any idea what this club is going to be. It might be amazing, the beginnings of an annual enjoyment. It might be a complete flop; my twenty brave volunteers might show up for the first meeting…and then never come again. But I’m going to find out.


I’ve decided that during each meeting, we’re going to explore something new. There aren’t going to be many directions, mainly because I don’t know what I would say. Instead, I’m going to give the kids the freedom to explore, many mistakes, and try new things. In effect, they’re going to do the same thing I’m doing with the club — try it out and see what works.

Maybe we should be doing this more with kids every day during the school year. Struggling and then finding ways to overcome the struggle will be something they do for the rest of their lives. Most tasks they face in a real job will be ones they’ve never seen before.

After all, that’s the process I’m going through right now. Tomorrow is our first meeting; wish me luck!



Four Reasons to Use a New Technology Tool…And One Reason Not To

New technology tools flood my inbox and Twitter feed daily. I could probably spend a full day each week exploring new tools with students and still not cover half of them. So, how do you decide whether or not to use a new technology tool with your students? What is worth their time?

Here are four reasons to use a new technology…and one reason not to:

1. It makes learning more authentic. – Some technology tools help you find an audience for student work. Whether it’s writing, reading, or an online project, a technology tool that helps students reach a real audience will increase their effort. Students working with a purpose create higher quality work because they know others will see it. Student blogs are a great example of this.

2. It increases student engagement. – Some technology tools are simply a substitution for a piece of paper and a pencil. It’s the lowest level of technology integration, but it’s not always bad! Taking a boring worksheet and turning it into a boring pdf doesn’t help, but if students will be more highly motivated to practice their multiplication facts with an online game, go for it! It’s not higher-level thinking, but it’s a skill they must have to succeed in the future.


3. It makes the impossible possible. – If a technology tool allows your students to do something they could not otherwise do, it’s probably a winner. Having a video chat with a scientist across the country, typing on the same document with a partner at the same time, and writing code are all examples of things that couldn’t happen without technology. My district recently purchased a Learning Management System (LMS). I learned all about it but did not have a reason to use it with my students. However, when a teacher in another building and I realized we could create a discussion forum accessible to students at both schools, I got onboard.

4. It’s fun to try new things. – If something looks cool, find a few moments to try it. Sometimes it’s hard to see a tool’s potential without seeing it in action. You might end up seeing applications for the tool you had never considered. You also might end up seeing that the tool is a waste of time. Now you know.

But never, never, ever, never use a technology tool…

…to justify the money spent on it. – Comments like, “We paid for this, so we should use it,” are giant red flags! As a teacher, the budget is not your concern; students are. If someone spent money on something you know is a waste, it is not your duty to go down with the ship. Consider trying it once, but abandon anything you know is not benefitting kids.

Good luck with all your technology explorations!

Six Classroom Jobs You Haven’t Assigned to Students Yet…But Should

You have your paper-passers and a student who takes the attendance to the office. You have your lunch count helper and your class librarian. You even have someone assigned to hold the door on the way out to recess. They make life easier.

But why stop there? Here are six jobs you can assign to students to help your classroom run smoothly.

Game Caretaker – Do your students bring you wayward checkers, mancala pieces, and playing cards at the end of inside recess? Is your game cabinet a disaster? No longer! The Game Caretaker solves all these problems. When lost pieces are turned in, I just redirect them to the Game Caretaker who knows exactly where they all go.

The Caboose – The caboose is always at the end of the line. I don’t use this job every year, but some years it is very valuable. This job can go to a student who needs more personal space. It’s also ideal for a student who has trouble remembering to face forward in line since there’s nobody behind them to look at. The Caboose can also take care of closing the door if needed on the way into the classroom.

Math Materials Keeper – You probably have all sorts of math materials you use throughout the year. Base ten blocks, fraction circles, protractors, and all the others can be a headache. Instead, at the beginning of the year, show a student where these are kept. This student then becomes the distributor and collector of all these materials, saving you time and hassle.

Computer Plugger – This is one I made up, and it is my favorite to recommend. If your students have any access to portable devices, they must be plugged in after use or at the end of the day. Having students line up to plug in their device can create a huge, noisy logjam as each student tries to find the right cord. Instead, teach all the students to just slide their device in the correct slot and move out of the way. At the end, send the Computer Plugger to plug in all the devices. This student can also let you know if any devices are missing. You’ll love this one!

The Sub – The sub’s job is to know how to do every job in the classroom. When a student is absent, the sub does that job. This way, students won’t be clamoring about who gets to do that job.

Oddjob – Yes, you can call this job Oddjob…the kids won’t catch on to the James Bond reference. This student, who should be one of your most organized, diligent students, takes care of any small jobs you need. You might need a set of papers checked off or something carefully filed. Oddjob loves to work, and you will have more time.


Hopefully you can use one or more of these ideas to help your classroom run like a well-oiled machine. Have a great school year!


Teachers: We Are in Public Relations

Teachers are in public relations…even if we don’t want to be. I could spend a few sentences defining the words “public” and “relations,” but I think we all now how that would end. For many years, I actively avoided this aspect of the job. I remember making sure I left school right after the buses on report card day so I wouldn’t have to field any phone calls. Not my proudest moment.

It wasn’t until I embraced the public relations portion of the job that I was able to take my teaching to another level. How could this work outside of the school day affect what happens during the day so strongly? Here are some suggestions for improving this aspect of your teaching, following by an explanation of its importance:

1. Send a letter to students before you start the year. – You’ve probably read this one before. It took me ten years of reading this suggestion before I tried it, but once I did, it was transformative. Kids love to get mail. They smile when it arrives. When parents see you have gone to this effort, they know you care, and nothing is more valuable to a parent than knowing their child will be in caring hands for an entire school year..

2. Post pictures online. – It doesn’t matter what tool you use; there are so many to choose from. A classroom blog, Facebook, Seesaw, Remind, ClassDojo, Twitter, email – just find one that works for you and start posting! These photos give parents and the community a look into your classroom. Students tell their parents about their day, but the photos you send show them.


3. Be present in the community. – There are many ways to do this, but my favorite is attending athletic events and group performances featuring my students. Each year, I invite students to bring me a copy of the schedule for their baseball team, dance squad, or whatever group to which they belong. Then, I try my best to make it to one of their events. Kids light up when they see their teacher outside of school.

All of this takes some time, but its value is immeasurable. One example from last year removed any doubt it was worth it. One of my students continuously had difficulty with his behavior for substitutes. Whenever I was gone, I would return to read a note about some ridiculous thing this student had done. I contacted the parent, had a conference, and the parent spoke with his child. Among his comments to the child was, “Mr. White really cares for you. He came to your basketball game, remember?” The parent then went on to tell the child he should not be causing problems for a teacher that cares for him. This made an impact. The major problems for subs ended.

As teachers, we can recoil from or embrace the public relations part of our job. If we value these chances to interact with families and the community, we will see many benefits that positively impact our classrooms.




Finding My Own Book…At a Garage Sale!

I found one of my classroom library books at a garage sale, and I’m definitely not mad about it. I’m proud.

Like most teachers who are trying to build a dynamic classroom library, I attend lots of garage sales. I’m always looking for books to fill a gap in a series or new copies to replace tattered favorites. Recently, my garage sale travels somehow landed be in my own school’s district, and after stopping near a homemade sign, I approached a sale hoping to find a new treasure. As I headed up the driveway, I heard, “Are you a teacher?”

Every teacher understands that question. That question means this person knows you are a teacher, and your brain starts searching its depths to match the adult with a child you taught years ago. It turned out I had found the home of a grandmother of a student I had in class almost a decade ago.

After a bit of small talk, I perused the sale, when I glanced over to see a pile of children’s books. Knowing I would put them to good use, the grandmother said I could have them. I thanked her and walked to my car when it caught my eye. There, on the title page, was my handwritten name. I had found a long-lost classroom library book.

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I’m wasn’t mad. Surprised, yes, but not mad. This child was not malicious or a compulsive thief, so one of three things must have happened.

  1. The child was reading the book at home, and it eventually went missing, only to be later found in an overlooked corner of a room.
  2. The child wanted to have the book with her during a trip to trip to her grandmother’s house.
  3. The child loved the book so much, she couldn’t bring herself to return it at the end of the year.

All of these make me happy. Even the third one. I’m happy because in each situation the access to books I provided in my classroom made a difference. I had the right book for the right child at the right moment. This child enjoyed reading this book, and that is special. If I can motivate and inspire all my students to enjoy reading as she did, I will have met my goal. It makes me smile to think that some of my other classroom books are probably floating around out there somewhere.

Maybe they’ll be at the next garage sale.

Summer Professional Reading – Reading Nonfiction: Notice and Note

Time to make the invisible visible. My goal with my next few posts is to document my thoughts from the professional books I read this summer, both to help me synthesize ideas and have a record I can check after the craziness of back-to-school is over.

Reading Nonfiction by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst could be called a companion to their first book, Notice and Note. In Notice and Note, Beers and Probst examined fiction, articulating six signposts – commonalities between many works – which readers should watch for, pause, and think about. They offered sample lessons for each signpost and questions students should consider when they notice these signposts. These were very beneficial to students in my classroom this year.


In Reading Nonfiction, Beers and Probst tackle nonfiction reading. I expected the authors to name and explain six signposts for nonfiction, but the differences in various forms of nonfiction led them down a slightly different path. In addition to five signposts, they offered three “stances” and seven “strategies” to use with students.

Beers and Probst’s nonfiction stances will affect my teaching the most. The stances are questions students should keep in mind when reading. They  set a purpose for students’ reading of nonfiction and give them somewhere to go with their discussion. This is extremely important and will help facilitate discussion. Right now, my go-to nonfiction question to ask, “What did you learn from this?” Unfortunately, I often just receive a rereading of one random sentence when I call for an answer. This doesn’t leave much opportunity for in-depth or interesting discussion. The stances will improve this.

My favorite stance question is to ask students to read to answer the question, “What surprised me?” I tried this out on my six-year-old and found it an effective way to jumpstart a conversation after reading. Usually, the surprising information is the most interesting. The second stance question is, “What did the author think I already knew?” The goal of the question seems to be to help kids identify confusing parts. If a student says they think the author thinks the reader knows what photosynthesis is, then it is photosynthesis that is causing comprehension to breakdown. The third question leads to more higher-level thinking. As they read, have students think, “What changed, challenged, or confirmed what I already knew?” These questions could lead to the types of critical thinking we all want students to develop. (Note to self: Teach these early and often!)

The next section of the book moves into the five signposts students should notice and think about:

  • Contrasts and Contradictions
  • Extreme or Absolute Language
  • Numbers and Stats
  • Quoted Words
  • Word Gaps

While I think the stances were the most valuable takeaway from this book for me, I do think I will teach these signposts during a nonfiction unit. I will likely make a few changes to simplify and clarify these for my fourth graders. The first signpost, Contrasts and Contradictions, will receive a new name to distinguish it from the fiction signpost of the same name. The fiction signpost asks students to notice when a character does something you don’t expect while the nonfiction one is more about a contradiction between what is read and the reader’s prior knowledge. While these certainly are both contradictions, they are different enough to need a new name. I’ll probably also simplify the name of the second signpost a bit, though I’m not sure how yet.

With each signpost, the authors attach a question for readers to consider. For elementary classrooms, the authors suggest using just one question for each of the signposts — “What does this make me wonder?” I will likely add to that because I feel upper elementary students are capable of a bit more. My suggestion is for students to ask themselves, “Why did the author include this?” So, if a young reader notices a statistic, a quote, or an extreme claim, asking “Why did the author include this?” might help them look at the selection in a new way and think critically about the decision the author made.

The final section of the book strategies you could consider using with students. Because I was most interested in the during-reading aspect of reading, these weren’t as applicable for me, but I think content-area teachers in middle and high school could make good use of them.

Check out Reading Nonfiction by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst for much more detailed ideas and explanations!

More Reading Rules We Would Never Follow as Adults

I just read an amazing blog post by Pernille Ripp about the reading rules we impose on kids which we would never impose upon adults. I immediately asked her if I could write a sequel, and she has graciously invited me to do so.

Our goal as reading teachers can really be summed up in one phrase: to help create life-long readers. If we do that, we did our job. But, how many of us have consistently set arbitrary rules for our students that required them to do things which did not match this goal? I know I have. In her post, Pernille lists removing choice, forced reflection, competition, and several others. I’d like to add a few more.

Connecting Reading and Punishment – Reading and punishment should be as far away from each other as possible. Unfortunately, they are sometimes grouped together, and the damage can be devastating. A student who is in trouble might be told, “Instead of doing the fun activity, you have to sit here and the only thing you can do is read,” or “You didn’t fill out your reading log, so you have to make up that reading time at recess.” Will this make a child read more that day? Yes. But by associating reading and punishment, that child will read less in the future.

No Reading Ahead! – In what world do adult readers read the first three chapters of a fiction book and then stop for a few days until their group can meet to discuss? No. Nobody…not with fiction. Fiction book clubs attended by adults read the whole book and then meet. Instead, we get kids going in a book club or literature study group and then completely break their flow. Sometimes, they can’t ever get that flow back.


Denigrating T.V. and Movie Connections – We need books about SpongeBob, X-Men, and Disney movies in our classroom libraries, yet I hear some educators talk about how they don’t stock these because they are not “quality literature.” It’s usually true that the writing in these books is less than stellar, but this is not a reason to deem them unworthy for our classrooms. Adults often read a book because they saw the movie or vice versa. If we want kids to love reading, we should encourage all types of reading.

Assigned Library Days – This one is often impossible to avoid. Whether your school calls it “special class,” “related arts,” or something else, a weekly visit to the school library is often on the school’s master schedule. This doesn’t make sense; adults go to the library whenever they need to. Still in the middle of your book? We’re going anyway. Finish your book in two days? You’ll have to wait. Adults don’t visit the library like this. Our school libraries should be places where students can visit as needed.

Thanks again to Pernille Ripp for encouraging me to continue this discussion. It’s important for all of us to consistently reflect on what we are doing and the decisions we have made.

M.I.A. – The 150-Page Novel

As the subcommittee chair for our state’s children’s literature award for grades 4-6, I get a lot of free books. It’s a great perk! I get to see a lot of newly published books for kids (and add them to my classroom library!)

Here are two stacks of books I have received this year. I’ll let you guess how I’ve sorted them.

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On the left, you can see all the children’s novel targeted toward 9-12 year-olds that have 200 or more pages. On the right are the novels below 200 pages. This visual representation supports a trend I have noticed in recent years: the 150-page novel is disappearing from the world of children’s literature.

Now, your first reaction is to bring up a great children’s novel you recently read that has under 200 pages, which I’m sure you can do (remember, we’re talking novels here – not picture books or graphic novels). You’ve probably got a great one in your mind. But can you name three more? That becomes much more difficult.

Why is this happening? I’m not an industry insider, but I can make some guesses:

  • Graphic novels are flying off the shelves. Maybe publishers think reluctant readers will only be reading graphic novels, so they are not publishing shorter chapter books for upper elementary.
  • More early reader chapter books are being published. Keep in mind, though, that these are often targeted to 7-8 year olds and have covers a sixth-graders wouldn’t be caught dead with.
  • Page sizes, font sizes, and line spacing are being altered to lengthen books. This is just a guess, but maybe a novel that would have been 180 pages is being lengthened purposely to 250 pages using these tools.

The consequences of the lack of short novels for elementary are becoming more pronounced and more serious each year. These issues have always been present and teachers have taught students strategies to deal with them for years, but I see them being magnified in recent years.

1. Poor-fit books – Students choose books they think they should be reading instead of books that are a good fit. Again, I know this has always taken places, but with more students whose comprehension is on-grade-level reading 300-page books, there is more pressure for developing readers to choose giant books from the library in order to fit in with their peers. This leads directly to problem #2…

2. Too much book abandonment – There’s a place for abandoning a book, and it’s a skill we can teach to students. However, proficient readers finish most of the books they start. Developing readers need to be taught this and see it has a goal. Unfortunately, the decline in short novels targeted toward elementary students means that these readers are trying to slug through the giant books they choose, usually not finishing, and teachers have fewer options to recommend.

3. Difficulty broadening reading experiences – Graphic novels are amazing. We’ve seen this formerly-ostracized format move into the mainstream, even picking up a Newbery Honor Award in January (El Deafo by Cece Bell). Graphic novels are also wonderful tools to help developing readers learn to love reading, while at the same time developing their literacy skills and strategies they need. However, as teachers, we want readers to have a broad range of reading experiences. We like telling students, “I noticed you been reading a lot of graphic novels in this genre. Here’s a chapter book you might enjoy, too.” With fewer short novels, there are simply fewer selections now available to readers who want to step outside their comfort zone and try something new.

4. Difficulty with certain reading strategies – Certain reading skills and strategies require a student to have read an entire text. It’s hard to summarize or determine the theme of an abandoned books. With so many extraordinarily long children’s books, students are losing opportunities to process and practice these strategies. Yes, picture books are a workaround (and often a good choice) to deal with this, but students need these experiences at the end of a book they read over multiple days as well. Book choices for this are dwindling.

None of these problems are insurmountable for a well-read, thoughtful reading teacher, but having more tools would help teachers handle their daily challenges.

I’ll end with a plea to authors and publishers: Upper elementary students need novels under 200 pages. If you publish them, we will buy them and read them!

20 Ideas for Student-Created Video

When I was in high school, my friends and I loved any opportunity to create a video for school. These were always large, culminating projects at the end of a major unit, often at the end of a novel study. We would spend a week filming and editing our project. We would create two or three videos a year.

Now, students can easily create two or three videos a day. It’s so easy for students to record videos of almost anything in a classroom and use it to document their learning. These can be quick reflections using a Chrome Extension like Screencastify or can be pushed further by using an app like WeVideo to edit together multiple clips.

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Teachers should take advantage of the access students have for video production. Here are twenty possibilities for using video in the classroom:

  1. Book Reflections – Have students talk about their reading and thinking at the end of the week.
  2. Book Commercials – Students who finish a book and want to recommend it to others could create a quick commercial.
  3. Book Trailer – Students collect images for a trailer, edit them together, and provide the voice-over narration.
  4. Fluency – Take a fluency assessment via video.
  5. Fluency Improvement – Have students record their first reading and final reading of a passage throughout a week of instruction to see their growth.
  6. Parent Communication for Reading – Parents often underestimate or overestimate their child’s reading ability. Have students read a grade-level passage and share the video with parents.
  7. Evidence of Revision – Students could provide narration for a screencast of a Google Document. Using Revision History, they could discuss the improvement they made to their writing.
  8. Writing Exit Slip – Ask students to make a quick video showing how they used the day’s mini-lesson to improve their writing.
  9. How-To Math Videos – Students could record their explanations of math processes, clearly letting the teacher know if they understand.
  10. Math Exit Slip – Pose a question based on the math lesson and have students do a screencast as a response.
  11. Science Experiment Documentation – Have students record trials during a science experiment.
  12. Hypothesis vs. Conclusion – After a science experiment, ask students to reflect on what they learned, referencing their original hypothesis.
  13. Further Thoughts – In every subject, there are often interesting discussions. However, some students are always hesitant to raise their hands to participate. Ask students to record their thoughts at the end of the discussion to ensure 100% participation.
  14. A Day in the Life – Parents love to know what their children are doing. Have students create and edit a video of what they do during the day.
  15. Project Check-in – Keep tabs on students’ progress on major projects by having them submit a video showing their progress.
  16. Time-Lapse – Use video to show change over time. This would make a neat end-of-year project about a topic like seasons.
  17. Field Trip – Have students create a video reflecting on what they learned on a field trip.
  18. All About Me – Let students create a video early in the year as a way to introduce themselves.
  19. Questions – Provide a way for students to use video to ask you questions they might not be brave enough to ask in person.
  20. EL Support – Help EL students see their growth using video throughout the year.

Don’t worry, I haven’t actually even done half of these ideas…yet. However, a tool like video has endless applications, and it is important to imagine the possibilities. Do you have other favorite ways to use videos in the classroom? Or maybe you have ideas you have just dreamed up today? Please share them in the comments.

Why the Last Three Weeks of School are the Best

The last three weeks of school are the best, and it’s not for the reasons you might think. I’m not talking about doing countdowns and holding awards programs. Instead, the last three weeks of school are the best because they allow teachers time to experiment with new lessons, tools, and procedures they might want to use the next year.

Here are my favorite things to do during the last three weeks of school:

1. Change the order. – You know your day’s schedule and the students do too, but do you wish it could be different? Even just a little? Now is the perfect time to try out some changes. Move your read aloud time earlier in the day or see what math is like split into two blocks. Your current students will be able to handle it and might even appreciate the break from the normal routine. You will see if the schedule you’ve been dreaming about is really better than the one you currently have. Two weeks ago, I tried moving my vocabulary time right after recess. I didn’t like it, but now I know not to do that next year!

2. Move stuff. – Just because the circle table has always been in the corner and the computer cart has always been by the sink doesn’t mean these are the best places for these items. Over the last three weeks, move stuff. Put it somewhere different and see if it’s a more efficient place. This can include student supplies and materials as well. I’m going to move the location where my students store their book baskets because I’m trying to improve the traffic flow during our arrival and dismissal times.

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3. Try the tech tool you heard about. – Did you attend a professional development session where you learned about an interesting website? Did you see someone tweet about a tech tool which sounded perfect for your room? Now is the perfect time to try it! Your observations by administrators are likely finished, so there’s no risk in having a technology tool completely ruin a lesson. Try a Chrome extension or app in these final three weeks. Next week, I’m going to have students try creating video blogs about books they have been reading. This might grow into a wonderful platform for students to respond to their reading next year. Or it might flop!

4. Read the picture books you didn’t find time for earlier in the year. I have many favorite picture books, and I incorporate most of them into lessons during the year, either as tools to demonstrate reading strategies or writing mentor texts. However, as I looked at my shelves last week, I kept thinking, “Ohh man…I MUST read this book soon!” The last three weeks are a great time to share your favorites. You are modeling a love for reading that might result in students reading more for pleasure over the summer. This week I’ll be reading Baaa by David MacCauley and Smoky Night by Eve Bunting. My students need to hear these books.

The last three weeks of school give you some of the freedom and opportunity which are sometimes absent during the school year. Resist the urge to put on a bunch of videos or push boring worksheets. Instead, try out something you’ve been thinking and wondering about. It might develop into a staple of your classroom!