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Celebrate World Book Day!

World Book Day is March 6.  Initiated by UNESCO, World Book Day celebrates the joys and the transformational experiences of reading.

Larry Ferlazzo, a prolific educational blogger, suggests some of the best sites related to World Book Day. Here are just a couple:

  • Larry’s list of best sites for intermediate readers– a lot of his suggestions include informational text resources.
  • The World Book Day official site from the UK

World BookDay

Infusing the joy of reading into our curriculum and instruction is a worthy goal for middle grades teams.  Here are some cool quotes to have on your wall…

  • “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.” George R. R. Martin A Dance With Dragons
  • “Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.”
    Lemony Snicket, Horseradish
  • “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
    Dr. Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!
  • “Books are a uniquely portable magic.”
    Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

There has been a lot of debate recently about what students should be reading in school.  If you believe in the power of student choice, grab a copy of Smith and Wilhelm’s new book from Scholastic, Reading Unbound.

Reading Unbound

Celebrating World Book Day as a Team:

  • Take time during class (all teachers) to share an excerpt from your favorite book and a short explanation why it is cherished.
  • Invite students to dress as their favorite character (teachers too) and take time for students to share their thoughts.
  • Invite the librarian in to do book talks about the latest books in the library (print or digital).
  • Have a reading fest where students bring in their favorite children’s books and read aloud from them.  (Good activity to practice fluency)
  • Write a book together as a class or team.
  1. Use a web tool like SlideShare.net where students or sets of partners create a slide on a topic and then compile those slides into a slideshow and publish.  Topic should be something of high interest to students.
  2. Create an eBook using iBook Author or other web tool.  Here’s a link to a book on critters in Florida written by a middle school science class.  It includes images, videos, and text. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/creatures-plants-and-more!/id521854684?mt=11
  3. Invite a local author to visit or participate via Skype or Google Hangout.
  4. Have students research authors across time and then have them role play in a scenario:  Dinner at the White House, Panel discussion on a hot topic, Interviewed by Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman, Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah, or Arsenio Hall, etc.

If you have to link everything you do to a standard–think about the speaking and listening ones, close reading, writing informational text, etc.  Never let the standards keep you from doing something beneficial with your students!

In the spirit of the day, here are some of my favorites:

What are some of  your and your students’ favorites?  Happy World Book Day!

The following post is a set of responses to questions that came up at a recent workshop Chris Toy and I did on block scheduling.  The participants’ questions and the responses may be of interest to others transitioning to block scheduling.

Questions From Staff

Two most important resources:

  1. Yourselves—ask each other questions…”How are you dealing with absences?” What strategies seem to really work with our ELLs? There is a collective wisdom that can be tapped.
  2. Create your own PD by posing questions via the Internet.  Use natural language and end with a ?    ex. What are some good strategies for teaching social studies in the block?

A number of the questions focused on teaching strategies:

Some books:

Everyone’s Invited: Interactive Strategies That Engage Young Adolescents  Jill Spencer available from AMLE   http://www.amle.org/Shop/tabid/135/Default.aspx

Ten Differentiation Strategies for Building Prior Knowledge and Ten Differentiation Strategies for Building Common Core Literacy by Jill Spencer  http://www.amle.org/Shop/tabid/135/Default.aspx

Teaching in the Block: Strategies for Engaging Active Learners by Rettig & Canady   http://www.amazon.com/Teaching-Block-Strategies-Engaging-Learners/dp/1883001234

Differentiated Instructional Strategies for the Block Schedule by Gregory & Herndon  http://www.corwin.com/books/Book228236

Anything by Carol Ann Tomlison

Edutopia has great resources on a variety of topics including inquiry learning, technology integration, etc.: http://www.edutopia.org/grade-level-6-8

Jill says…I follow Edutopia and ISTE on Facebook where I find all sorts of ideas: Edutopia – https://www.facebook.com/edutopia & ISTE – https://www.facebook.com/LikeISTE

MAMLE website—Instructional practices tab: http://mainemamle.org/publications/

Google “heterogeneous class teaching strategies” and you will find many sites full of ideas.

Project based learning resources:

Edutopia: http://www.edutopia.org/project-based-learning

Buck Institute: http://bie.org/

Seven Essentials for PBL: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/sept10/vol68/num01/Seven_Essentials_for_Project-Based_Learning.aspx

Thoughts about planning when doing project learning:

–You will still need to have some focused direct – teaching episodes on specific skills students need to apply in their project work.  e.g. (1) Deciding what is important and what’s just kind of interesting when doing research and taking notes. (2) How to conduct an interview.

–You will still want to plan some sort of closure for each class when students self-assess their effort & progress and reflect on what they have learned.

–You may want to include a check-in where kids tell you what they will be specifically working on during class, and then  follow-up with them individually to check on their progress.

Learning Centers in the Block—These comments come from Sarah Lange Hayes, a math teacher in Amherst, Massachusetts. Although these ideas relate to math, they can be applies to other subjects:

Learning Centers

  • Use formative assessments to determine where students are in their learning–who is ready to extend, who needs reinforcement, and who needs some remediation within the standard(s).
  • Develop 6 or 7 different activity-based learning stations that address students’ needs, one of which is a  “Create Your Own Problem/Activity” station.
  • Determine which students will start at which activities based on your formative assessment data.
  • Develop and share guidelines for moving through stations with students.
  • Work at various stations for 2-3 class periods (total), depending on progress and effectiveness of stations.  I track which stations students are visiting/have visited, and give suggestions to students about where to go next for those who seem to need it.  I and any other adults in the room (special education teacher, special education paraprofessional) move around the room as students work, observing, questioning, guiding.
  • Assign nightly homework based on the stations that the students participated in during class.

In my experience (from Sarah Hayes), a few things that helped this strategy be successful are:

  • Assigning starting stations to students based on formative assessment data help me make sure that each student begins working at an activity that will help move him/her forward in his/her understanding (not too challenging/frustrating to start and not an activity for a concept for which s/he already demonstrated mastery).
  • A variety of stations help with the “time factor.”  It has always been a challenge for me about how to approach the fact that students can work at such different paces and for such different reasons.  Providing enough stations so that students have plenty of activities to explore, combined with the expectation that all students continue working throughout the class period (the number of stations completed is not emphasized, rather the quality of the effort at each station is), helped with this issue.
  • An element of student choice is helpful, but it also important that I monitor these choices myself to make sure students are making effective use of their time.
  • Flexibility to move to a different activity if the current station isn’t a good “fit” is also important.

Special Education

Here are some resources that you may find helpful:

–Universal Design in Learning (http://www.cast.org/udl/ ): is a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn.  UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone–not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs.

–Don’t forget that the iPads have text to speech and speech to text capacity—Settings/General/Accessibility/make sure Speak Selection is on.  It will read Internet material as well as other text.  Students with reading issues can listen to text; students who struggle with writing can use the  speech to text capacity to begin to get their ideas down by just speaking. (Click on microphone on keyboard)

–Remember you can get rid of extraneous and distracting material on a website by hitting the 4 straight lines icon on left side of address bar.  distractons

Helping students (1) catch-up when they’ve been absent and (2) retain new learning over vacations, holidays, etc.    Many teachers are using technology resources for these purposes:

  1. Create short videos of lessons and post them online for students to access 24/7.  Two good apps are Show Me and Educreations.  Sometimes the teacher creates them, or often the videos are created by students. After the video is created, the app assigns a URL where the video is posted.
  2. Use Wikis and sites like Edmodo to communicate with students.  Students can ask questions and get responses from their teacher.  Assignments and models of exemplars can be posted for easy access by students and families.
  3. Some teachers do online office hours—very structured and specific times. Google hangout, Google Docs, Skype, IM, etc.
  4. Web tools like Quizlet can set up activities students can access from home or the public library to learn vocabulary.



Jack Berckemeyer, Ruler of Education, has a new book out! Taming of the Team: How Great Teams Work Together  


Jack offers a lot of practical ideas for teams, and one of my favorites is the 3-5-3 Action Plan.  Too often teams revisit the same student and his or her problems over and over again during Common Planning Time.  10% of the students consume 80% of the team’s time.  That’s pretty inefficient.  Unfortunately many teams never get beyond retelling all of the child’s misdemeanors during planning time and then having parent conferences where the same stories are retold. Nothing changes and frustration on everyone’s part grows.  Jack has a great strategy for breaking this unproductive cycle–his 3-5-3 Action Plan.  Here’s a quick summary:

1. As a team prepare a list of issues facing the student.

  •  Create the list before talking with parents or the student so everyone on the team is in agreement about the issues.
  • Divide the list into 2 parts: academic issues & behavior issues

2. Choose 3 academic or 3 behavior issues from the list.  Here’s your first 3!

  • It’s very important to keep the two categories separate.
  • Decide as a team which set you want to deal with first.

3. Once you have decided on which issue to focus on with the student, brainstorm as many actions as you can think of that will help the student move forward.

  • Categorize the ideas into teacher-initiated interventions, student services involvement, and parental involvement.
  • Make sure these strategies or actions are realistic.
  • Choose 5 of these strategies for the plan.  Here’s your 5 in the 3-5-3 Action Plan.

4. Designate 3 ways the team will follow up and coach the student.   This is your final 3!

I think the final step of follow-up and coaching is critical, and it’s a step teams often leave out.  The coaching, in my mind, must be intentional and someone’s responsibility.  We know just telling a young adolescent or anyone for that matter that they need to do 1, 2, 3, etc. rarely changes behavior.  Instead, think Jillian Michaels on The Biggest Loser–well maybe not that extreme.  Kids, however, need encouragement and cheerleaders as well as someone to help them reflect on their choices and decisions.  Jack’s 3-5-3 Action Plan provides teams with a concrete strategy to use with their students who struggle academically or behaviorally.


Meet and Greet Jack at the MAMLE Annual Conference

October 17-18, 2013

Point Lookout Resort and Conference Center

Northport, Maine

Common Core literacy standards include:

  • Reading — Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Writing — Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

By coordinating their efforts, a team can provide a variety of contexts for students to practice the skill of citing evidence in both discussions and writing.  Finding strategies that work across the disciplines is the first step.  Here’s one that Abby Svenson, fifth grade teacher at Harpswell Community School in Maine, uses with her students.

  • Students respond to a prompt.
  • The teacher chooses 3 responses —   good, better, and excellent.
  • Students identify the positive aspects of each response.
  • Then students make concrete suggestions to make the responses even stronger.
  • The teacher creates a visual summarizing the ideas for students to reference when revising their own work.

The image below shows the visual that Abby constructed.

Abby Svenson Post-It


  1. 3 columns
  2. The responses are in the center.
  3. Response #1 is the weakest and #3 is the strongest.
  4. Identified positives are in the left column.
  5. Suggestions for making responses stronger by citing additional evidence are on the right.

This particular example is a literature lesson.  Imagine the social studies teacher following up with a similar exercise based on a video, and the science teacher adapting the process to fit his needs.  As students become familiar and confident with the process, they can focus more and more on the content. Multiple practices and varied contexts builds competence and confidence.

This strategy could become digital by using a wiki or Google Drive. The advantage of using a digital tool is, of course, that the examples are available 24/7 to students working on assignments.

Learning to cite evidence to support a stance or make an important point is not beyond any student. Modeling, multiple practices, and having students work together will provide the scaffolding necessary to build these skills. When teachers collaborate to plan a systematic approach across the curriculum, students benefit.

More snow here in the Northeast today so it is difficult to think about spring being just around the corner.  However, the clock leaps ahead this weekend so green grass and tulips must be on the way.  In my last post I suggested teams assess how well you are connecting with each and every child as a first step in a spring tune-up.  A good second step is to think about skills that students need to be successful in all of your classes:

  • Identifying the main idea and supporting details
  • Writing an open ended response
  • Making inferences
  • Crafting an argument with sufficient evidence and logical reasoning
  • Taking notes
  • Searching the Internet effectively, efficiently, and ethically
  • Keeping track of assignments and managing time

The list could go on and on, however the team needs to choose one on which to focus.  If you could send your students on to the next grade having truly mastered just one academic skill, what would it be?  Which one would be the most beneficial to them? (Of course there are many, but you have to start somewhere!)   Once you have identified that skill, devise a cross-curricular approach to teaching and reinforcing it:

  • Who is going to introduce or reteach the skill?  When and in what context?
  • What order are the other teachers going to reinforce the skill and provide additional practices within the context of their curriculum?  How will they do it? Share ideas.
  • How will you assess student progress and then reteach if necessary?

Actually plan it out on calendar.

Screen Shot 2013-03-10 at 10.20.38 AM

Hold yourselves responsible.  Take time to reflect on this strategy–did you get the desired results?  If so, what’s the the next skill you are going to address?  If not, figure out what you might try differently next time!   Collaborating to build student skills is a powerful strategy for learning.

Spring Tune-Up! Part 1

It’s early March and in some parts of the country the daffodils are starting to bloom, creating waves of bobbing yellow heads that stand out sharply against the greening grass.  However, it’s all white in my neck of the woods with snow still piled up two feet high.


No matter the scenery, early spring is a great time for your team to pause and reflect on your progress so far.

There are still at least two or three solid months left before the end of the year rituals and festivities commence.  Take time to review what the team has accomplished so far and to prioritize your collaborative efforts for the rest of the year so you can make the best use of this block of instructional time.  Focus on those activities that will help your students the most and make sure the team “cylinders” fire in a coordinated and efficient manner.

One aspect of a team spring tune-up ought to include an assessment of how well the teachers are connecting with each of the students.  Here are a couple of questions to ask yourselves:

  • Does each of our students have an adult advocate on the team—someone who knows the student well and with whom the student feels comfortable talking?
  • Do we incorporate student interests in our instruction?
  • Does each of our students feel valued?

Here’s an activity for Common Planning Time to help you assess how well you are connecting with your students:

  • Write every student’s name on an index card.
  • Spread the cards out on a table, name side up.
  • Individually, note on the card the interests of the student.  For example: Johnny—snowmobiling and water skiing, Maria—singing and composing
  • When each teacher has finished noting what s/he knows about individual student interests, step back and look at the array of cards.
    • Are there some students everyone seems to know?
    • Who are the students with blank cards?
    • Do the students with blank cards share any characteristics?  What do these shared characteristics tell us about our team?  Are there some things we need to address?
      • Low grades?
      • Behavior issues?
      • Special ed?
      • Very quiet?
      • Eat lunch alone?
  • Create a plan.  How will you connect with each of those students whose cards are blank?
    • Informal conversations?
    • Advisory, homeroom or class activity?
    • Eat lunch with them?
    • Conversations with parents?
    • How might we use student interests to connect with our curricula?
  • Set a date to review your progress in making personal connections with these students.

We know that relationships are a key element is a student’s motivation and achievement in school.  Sometimes connections naturally occur among students and staff, but there are always those students left out.  It is imperative that middle grades team teachers be intentional in building relationships:

  • Student to student
  • Staff to student
  • Staff to families

Taking time to check on the status of the connections between you and your students is a first step in a Team Spring Tune Up .  Do not let any of your students leave the team at the end of the year without feeling they were known, appreciated, and valued by their teachers.

  • Orphaned or abused chimpanzees,
  • A sanctuary that has survived 10 years of civil war.
  • A desperate need for money.

These are the ingredients of a service learning project that will intrigue and inspire middle school students.  On a recent trip to Sierra Leone in West Africa I visited Tacugama, a sanctuary for chimpanzees.  Their goal is to reintroduce the chimps back into the wild, but it is a long and expensive process.

Sitting chimp

learning to socialize

These chimps are in the enclosure that helps them learn to socialize with other chimps.  Many have not had that experience in captivity.

Chimps live in family groups in the wild–socialization is a survival skill.

Over 20,000 chimpanzees roamed the forests of Sierra Leone in the 1970’s, but now there are only 3,000.  There are a variety of reasons why the numbers have dropped drastically:

  • Their habitat has shrunk.
  • They are captured for medical research or to be sold as pets.
  • They are considered ‘bush meat” and when times are tough they are hunted for food.
  • They are highly susceptible to human diseases like HIV.

All most ready for release!

These chimps are almost ready to be released to wild!

The Sanctuary rescues chimps that are often in dire circumstances.  Baby chimps are adorable and so human-like that people often want them as pets.  However, a full grown chimp has 5 times the physical strength of a man, so the cuddly baby grows into a unruly adolescent that can wreck a home in minutes and into an adult that is dangerous.  Hence they are often chained and caged under deplorable conditions.  The Tacugama staff works hard to rehabilitate these chimps so they can live free. Click on this link to read about the history of the Sanctuary: http://www.tacugama.com/history.html.

Sierra Leone’s civil war was tough on the chimps as well as humans.  They were terrorized by bombs and gunfire and suffered physically and emotionally just as humans do.

It takes about $1000 to support one chimpanzee for a year. However, smaller donations are welcomed.   Schools, teams and/or advisory groups might find supporting this haven for battered and endangered chimpanzees a worthwhile project.  More information about supporting Tacugama can be found at this link: http://www.tacugama.com/support.html

Chimp nests

If you look closely at the trees you will see dark clumps of leaves–these are the chimps’ nests where they sleep at night.

Finally, there is a blog that students may find interesting (http://tacugama.wildlifedirect.org/).  The posts explain what is happening with individual chimps; the photos are wonderful!  Readers will learn a lot about chimps as well as the Sanctuary.  We often never know what inspires our students to make specific career and life choices — reading about the chimps of Tacugama may just be a catalyst for future decisions related to international travel, non-profit work, or veterinary work!

Watching us

Who is watching whom???

The one in the back whose face we cannot see was not impressed with us–s/he threw rocks at us.

PS–Feel free to use these pictures for your own use.

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