Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels,
each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels,
and each student demonstrates learning at high levels (Blackburn, 2008).

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Motivating Students with a Microphone

We hear over and over again how important relevance is to student motivation and engagement. Erin Owens uses a popular television show to inspire her first graders:

My students share a great deal. I have found that a microphone has played a key role in motivating them to produce quality work. First of all, they love the microphone, at first they say it is like “being on American Idol.” You can hear them more clearly and their voice is obviously amplified. This gains the attention of the audience more so than traditional sharing. After the “glamour” wears off, they begin to realize that they are showcasing their work each time they “step up to the microphone.” I began to see a major change in their motivation to produce the best work they were capable of to impress and entertain their peers.

Notice she uses something students can relate to, not to deliver content, but to help them with one of the processes of learning, in this case, speaking.  What a great idea!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

One of My Favorite Resources

Throughout December, I'm going to profile some of my favorite resources.  First up, organization and time management is always a struggle, isn't it?  No matter how much I try, my inbox is never empty, and I have a stack of papers on my desk.  Frank Buck, a friend and contributor to my books, helps me with these challenges. He's also trying to convince me to go paperless! Here's my summary of his resources:

For professional development to “stick,” there must be follow-up. That was the reason the “Get Organized!” blog was started over 6 years ago. Workshop participants can read additional content and interact long after the workshop is over. The focus of the blog is a nut-and-bolts approach to organization and time management. In a world that is becoming increasingly more digital, readers find simple solutions to harness common technology tools. The free e-mail newsletter is a once-per-month “breath of fresh air” which appears automatically appears in the reader’s Inbox. It’s attempt is to teach, inspire, and make navigating our work and personal loves a little easier.

To begin receiving the newsletter, visit FrankBuck.blogspot.com and look for a link on the right-hand side of the screen inviting you to subscribe.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Real Life Learning for Young Students

Students are never too young to experience real-life learning. Erin Owens creates a fun taste of reality for her first graders. As a culminating activity for an economics unit, the class takes a field trip to a Krispy Kreme (doughnut) store. They observe real-life examples of key concepts: marketing (posters and signs), jobs (cashier, doughnut maker, and manager), goods and services, and teamwork. To apply what they learned, they set up a class store. As a group, they determined the store name, what to sell, costs and needed materials, how to market the store, and the necessary jobs. “All of this took team- work and in the process, the students took ownership of their learning. It was amazing to see the application of concepts in progress. They had job applications, divided into teams, and thought of every- thing we would need to effectively run the store. I served as facilitator and material gatherer, they planned everything. At the end, the other first-grade classes came to purchase our bookmarks.”

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Remember Why You Like School?

Do you remember the first time you thought about being a teacher, principal, or another role as an educator? For me, I don't ever remember NOT wanting to be a teacher.  My parents even have a picture of me as a child teaching our kittens how to read!  But, there have been many times when I've forgotten that excitement and passion for teaching.  It's easy to do when we are bombarded by the challenges of accountability, a wide range of students, dealing with parents, and paperwork!

I'm going to take time this Thanksgiving weekend to rest and relax (it helps that I've finished all the revisions on my latest book, Rigor Made Easy).  However, there is one thing I'm going to take time for.  I'm going to write down why I decided to be a teacher (and teacher of teachers and leaders now) and then list at least 10 reasons that I made a good decision.  In fact, here's my starting list:

I decided to be a teacher to make a difference.

1.  During my second year of teaching, I helped my remedial students realize that just because the test labeled them "below level" didn't mean they couldn't learn and grow just like everyone else.
2. During my first year of teaching, one of my most problematic students wrote me a note at the end of the year saying she wished I could be her teacher again.
3.  One of my graduate students emailed me to say, "You sure were tough on me, but I'm using everything you taught.  I think we appreciate you more after we're finished with your classes."

What will be on your list?  Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Great Resource for Leaders

Have you read books by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner?  Their focus is leadership, and my dad called the other day highly recommending them.  A couple of the points he found pertinent:
5 PRACTICES of Leadership
  1. Model the way
  2. Inspire a shared vision
  3. Challenge the process
  4. Enable others to act
  5. Encourage the heart
You can also check out their website at


Monday, November 21, 2011

Students with Special Needs....and Rigor?

After my blog post mentioning that rigor is for everyone, including students with special needs, I've received lots of questions.  One was quite pointed--asking why I would think that students with special needs could ever be successful trying to meet higher expectations.  I asked Missy Miles, one of my former graduate student who now works specifically with students with special needs, to respond. She specifically addresses students with learning disabilities:

LD doesn’t mean below average IQ.  In fact, most LD students have average to above average IQ, just have a discrepancy in their achievement level.  If these students are not challenged, they will be quite complacent to be status quo (or even below).  These kids, more than anybody, need adults who believe in them by giving them challenging work and high expectations.  I do agree that, by holding them to a lower standard or giving them exemptions to the test, we would be communicating loudly and clearly that we do not believe they can do any better.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Do expectations make a difference?

I've said it before, and we've all heard it from many sources--our expectations make the difference!

But in any case, I did poorly on the tests and so, in the first three years of school, I had teachers who thought I was stupid and when people think you're stupid, they have low expectations for you.
Robert Sternberg

Anything you need to do about that today?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Preparing Students for Life

How do we help prepare students for their futures?  In addition to teaching content, problem-solving, and teamwork, there are other ways to help students.  

Helping students make connections between their learning and real life is a foundational part of engaging classrooms. In Eric Robinson’s classes at Saluda Trail Middle School, he taught students how to write a resume. Then, he and his colleagues work together to show them how to select colleges/universities, the types of degrees, and job descriptions. "They do a rough draft of the resume, then after we work out the mistakes, the students type their resumes along with a cover letter. Once I approve the typed resume, the students set up an interview with an administrator or teacher who is part of the interview team. Prior to setting up an interview, each student has a class in interview etiquette. In this class, the students learn how to enter the door to the interview, how to talk, eye-to-eye contact, body posture, and good communication skills with the interviewer."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Down Time Can Lead to Discipline Problems

Beginning teachers often say they need to deal with discipline before they can focus on instruction. They quickly discover that if their instruction is busy and fast paced, many of the discipline problems disappear. Most discipline problems occur during down time—periods of time when students are not actively engaged in instruction, such as the start or end of class, during class changes, during lunch or recess, and during transitions between activities within your class. That’s why it is so important to keep your instruction moving at a rapid pace. Don’t go so fast you lose everyone, but keep it moving.

Jason Womack taught 50-minute high school classes. Each day the first task for students was to copy the schedule off the board. He organized his instruction around a theme for the day and always listed 5 to 12 activities. Typically, he scheduled 10, five-minute activities. He wanted students to see, hear, and touch something at least twice every day. In a typical day, they would “see something (watch me or data); hear about it (listen to me lecture or use the closed-eye process [tell 4–7 min. story with eyes closed]...touch some- thing (come back from wherever they went to [in their mind] and produce
something based on what they heard; draw, write it, make a video,...or a puppet show). My goal was to give them information and let them internalize and give it back; not just force-feed info and make them regurgitate it, but to give them an opportunity to internalize and express it.”

He also ensured that his students were constantly engaged in learning. Pacing is critical, as is keeping students engaged.  How can you improve what you are already doing to increase student engagement and keep discipline problems at bay?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

November Newsletter is Out!

Did you receive your November e-newsletter? This issue focuses on rigor and the Common Core State Standards.  If you haven't signed up, use the link to the right. I'll resend throughout the week.  If you have signed up and didn't receive it, check your spam folder!  I'm in New York City today for a day off with my dad.  If you will be at Madison Square Garden tonight for the Duke/Michigan State game, we'll be cheering in the Duke section!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Do Routines Make a Difference?

I was reminded of the importance of routines last semester when one of my graduate students e-mailed me in a panic. The tenor of her class had changed dramatically when the students returned from the Christmas break. In her words, they were wild and completely out of control. As we e-mailed back and forth, I learned that only one thing had changed: Before the holiday, she used a warm-up activity to start each class. Students kept these in a notebook and turned them in at the end of the week. However, she was told by an administrator that she had to take them up each day, grade them, and return them the next day. You can imagine what happened. Along with the busyness of students entering her room, she was trying to hand back yesterday’s work while they were starting on today’s work, and chaos followed.

I suggested she start with entrance slips. Students had five minutes to write down what they learned from the prior day’s lesson and any home- work. While this was happening, she handed back the graded warm-up. Next, as they started on the new warm-up, she took up entrance slips and determined how much she needed to review before she started a new lesson.

By Friday, I received an e-mail update: “My week ended so much better than it began! Entrance and exit slips are now permanent fixtures in my class. The kids have adjusted to them well. I decided to implement the slips in all of my classes, and oh what a difference they have made. I also plan to start read alouds daily...just for 5 minutes. I will begin with something that relates to some of the problems that my students may be experiencing now. I actually felt as though I was about to jump off of a cliff on Monday.” Both she and her students responded well to returning to the routine with some minor adjustments.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Stressed Today?

Being in control of your life and having realistic expectations about your day-to-day challenges are the keys to stress management, which is perhaps the most important ingredient to living a happy, healthy and rewarding life.
Marilu Henner

 Wow, I love this one!  I tend to hold myself to a standard of perfection, and I sometimes beat myself up for minor mistakes or for something that I had no control over, rather than just accepting them. I'm finding my stress level goes down when I accept that there are things I cannot control, and to focus on what I can control.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The #1 Point about the Common Core State Standards

I've heard so many people say that the CCSSs will solve all the problems with rigor in classrooms, that I was very relieved to hear what I knew--the standards are NOT about how teachers should teach.  The standards are rigorous, but the bottom line is what happens in the classroom with instruction.  That's always been my focus on rigor.  
Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels,
each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels,
and each student demonstrates learning at high levels (Blackburn, 2008).

I wrote a four page research brief on this a few months ago.  Interested?

Don't forget to sign up for the November newsletter on the Common Core--link is to your right!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Take-Aways About the Common Core State Standards

**This month's newsletter comes out this week--topic--CCSS--just the beginning. Sign up to your right. 

Yesterday, I attended a day of training from ASCD and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction on the new Common Core State Standards. There's one key aspect they discussed at the beginning of the presentation, and I'll devote tomorrow's blog to that specific point.  Other than that, here's my major take-aways, with my opinion in italics:

1.  The CCSSs help answer the question:  how/why am I ever going to use this. Not sure that all students will agree, but hopefully it's better than before.

2. A set of common standards helps because expectations shouldn't be determined by a student's zip code. I have always thought it was unfair that depending on where a student lives, he or she gets a better or worse education--when I was teaching in the early years of the standards movement, our state definitely saw a positive change in this area.

3. It's critical to look at appendices in the standards--the Language Arts appendices include text and writing samples. They made the point the text samples should not be used as required reading lists, etc. The materials are Lexile-based, and that is both positive and negative.  There are very positive aspects to Lexiles--full disclosure, when I was working on my Ph.D., I worked with Metametrics on Lexiles--but it is critical to understand that they only look at one aspect of text difficulty.  Teachers must use their own judgement concerning developmental appropriateness, interest, etc.

4. There is a series of video vignettes available on YouTube and on the CCSSO.org website (choose digital resources) These appear to be helpful for a basic understanding.

5.  The national PTA has resource guides for parents--www.pta.org/parent guides.  These look GREAT!

6. No matter which of the two assessment systems your state is using (PARRC or SMARTER Balanced), check out the resources for both. This seems smart, given the information on each site.  Also, many states have not decided which to use.

Most of the rest of the day was NC specific, but it was interesting to listen to principals, district administrators, college professors, and teachers discuss their perspective.  Their major concerns:  more resources needed, especially time for teachers to work together; information about the assessments and how that will impact what they need to do; technological resources such as bandwidth in smaller/poorer districts to ensure the online testing will work; and clear communication with colleges to prepare future teachers AND to clarify if the changes will have college admission implications.

All in all, an informative day, and one in which I was able to talk with great educators making a difference for students.  And that makes it worth it.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

All I Ever Needed to Know About Student Engagement

I recently read Robert Fulgham’s poem, All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I thought, all I ever needed to know about student engagement I learned watching a kindergarten teacher.

All I Ever Needed To Know About Student Engagement I Learned Watching a Kindergarten Teacher
Make it fun, and learning happens.
Build routines, and everyone knows what to expect.
Keep students involved, and they stay out of trouble.
Make it real, and students are interested.

Work together, and everyone accomplishes more.

Anything you would add?

Monday, November 7, 2011

What does student engagement look like?

What exactly is student engagement? I recently read a comment from a teacher on an Internet bulletin board. He said that his students seemed to be bored, and after talking with them, he realized that they were tired of just sitting and listening. He said they wanted to be more involved in their learning. I was excited to read further. The teacher said he decided then to “change how I teach, so now I make sure I do one activity each month with my class.” How sad. That means 19 days each month of class with no activities. Unfortunately, that describes many classrooms today.

Don’t misunderstand me. There is a place in teaching and learning for lectures and explanations and teacher-led discussions. But somehow, many teachers fall into the trap of believing that lecturing at or explaining to works. Perhaps it comes from our own experiences. Many of our teachers taught that way; it’s what we saw most of the time. But how many of those teachers were outstanding or inspiring educators? Not many. I had several great teachers, and none of them taught like that. What I do remember is that the older I got, the more I was talked at.

Where did that idea come from—the idea that as children grow up, they should be less involved in their own learning? Let’s be clear on some basic points:
§  Although kids can be engaged in reading, reading the textbook or the worksheet and answering questions is not necessarily engaging.
§  Although kids can be engaged in listening, most of what happens during a lecture isn’t engagement.
§  Although kids working together in small groups can be engaging, kids placed in groups to read silently and answer a question isn’t. Activities in groups where one or two students do the work aren’t engagement. Small groups don’t guarantee engagement just like large groups don’t automatically mean disengagement. 

So, what does it mean to be engaged in learning? In brief, it really boils down to what degree students are involved in and participating in the learning process. So, if I’m actively listening to a discussion, possibly writing down things to help me remember key points, I’m engaged. But if I’m really thinking about the latest video game and I’m nodding so you think I’m paying attention, then I’m not. It is that simple. Of course, the complexity is dealing with it.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Expectations for Yourself!

What do you think about this quote?

And indeed if you think you're a genius at something, what you achieve is very much according to your expectations; if you think you're no good, you're not going to get anywhere.
Diana Wynne Jones

Expect the best from YOURSELF!  After all,  you make a difference everyday! 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Effective Praise for Students

Derwin Gray, former NFL player and founder of One Heart at a Time Ministries (http://www.oneheartatatime. org), explains the impact of negative words. He points out that when we say something negative to another person, it’s like hammering a nail into them. And even when we say we are sorry, which pulls the nail out, it still leaves a hole. Unfortunately, most students leave school each day with many holes in their hearts. Is that true for the students you teach?

The most visible shift you can make in your classroom is to increase the amount of praise you use with students. However, this doesn’t mean to make random affirmative comments. I was in one classroom where the teacher said, “Good job!” every three seconds. Her students rolled their eyes and made faces each time. Saying good things just to say them is like doing 50 practice problems just so you can say you did them. The kids see right through you. There’s a huge difference between mere catch phrases and true praise

P Personally meaningful

R Respectful of the individual
A Authentic
I Immediate

S Specific

E Encouraging

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Positive vs. Negative Comments

Whenever I taught adolescent development, I invite Suzanne Okey, a former special education teacher, to speak to my students about working with special needs students. Before she comes, they have one assignment: Pick a class (or one block of time) and count the number of positive and negative comments they make. They can make marks on a piece of paper, or they can use two colors of marbles and move them from one pocket to another. The process doesn’t matter as long as the teachers unobtrusively keep a count. When she starts her presentation, she asks them how they felt about the assignment. Most of the teachers say they were surprised; they didn’t realize how many negative comments they say.

Students recognize this far quicker than we do. Read one student’s perspective (http://www.whatkidscando.org): “What’s also discouraging is when people never mention the good things. Instead of saying ‘Our geometry grades are up, we’re sending kids to good colleges and stuff,’ you hear, ‘We only have 90% attendance, which means that 200 of you are absent.....’ You know, encouragement creates encouragement. What helps is having a powerful and honest leader that we support and who supports us.”

Think About It...
What is the ratio of positive to negative comments in your classroom?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Leadership and Humility

I asked Jeff Zoul, a friend who writes about school leadership, if there was advice he would share with the leaders who read my blog.  Enjoy!
Humility—and How I Achieved It!
Last week at our church, I was reminded of two key traits exhibited by hugely successful leaders, according to Jim Collins. In his blockbuster book, Collins famously posited that leaders at the very top of their game—those known as “Level 5” leaders—possess a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will. Our pastor was speaking on the topic of humility and began by explaining he had preached on the topic many times: in front of student groups, in several churches across the country, and in our own church. “In fact,” he said, with his characteristic wry smile, “I daresay that I am an expert on the topic.”

This elicited the intended chuckle and it also reminded me of how difficult it can be as a leader of a school—or any organization—to exude a driving will to succeed while simultaneously maintaining a personal aura of humbleness. Truly great school leaders are relentless, unyielding, hold fast to a clear vision, and expect others within the organization to follow their lead. They demonstrate, model, expect, and insist on a commitment to excellence and a will to achieve. At the same time, these same leaders exhibit personal humility, which John Stott defines as, “the noble choice to forego your status, deploy your resources, or use your influence for the good of others before yourself.” It strikes me that our very finest school leaders constantly demonstrate each of these three servant actions so that others (primarily teachers and students) can achieve great things.

I have worked with hundreds of principals across the nation in recent years, many of whom I admire for the humble way in which they deflect recognition for their schools’ success, attributing it instead to parents, teachers, other administrators, and students. One small, simple—yet powerful—way that many of these effective school leaders exhibit personal humility is through the language they employ, specifically their intentional pronoun use of “we” and “our” in place of “I” and “my.” For example, I often hear principals say things like, “I have faculty meetings every month” or “My math teachers are really doing a great job of…” Obviously, such comments do not suggest that these principals are wild megalomaniacs focused solely on themselves. In fact, many outstanding principals regularly make similar statements quite innocently when speaking about the schools they lead. Still, I think the subtle shift to, “We have faculty meetings every month” and “Our math teachers are really doing a great job of…” used consistently over time, creates an atmosphere of teamwork, collaboration, collegiality, and service, and is an admirable trait of humble servant leaders.

The way we use language can be powerful, behooving us to choose our words with intention. Of course, the trait of humility can be a tricky thing as our pastor reminded us, and the language we employ only goes so far. Merely changing the word “I” in this blog post to “we,” for example, does little toward communicating a message of true humility! Authentically humble leaders go beyond language and by their very nature forgo their status, deploy their resources, and use their influence on a regular basis for the good of those they lead. I have met so may school leaders I admire lately, many for their professional will and others for their genuine personal humility. Of course, the very finest among them, as Collins suggests, demonstrate both.

In closing, to paraphrase our pastor, since I’m writing about humility, I’m probably not qualified to do so; rather, I will leave you with a quote on the subject from Phillip Brooks, which was included in our pastor’s sermon notes:

“The true way to be humble is not to stoop until you are smaller than yourself, but to stand at your real height against some higher nature that will show you what the real smallness of your greatness is."

You can follow Jeff @jeffzoul on Twitter