An overlooked key to success? Teaching teachers how to teach reading

The ability to read, and read well, is a skill that follows students for the rest of their lives and yet it’s shocking how many children lack the early education support they need to develop this essential competency.

Providing proper literacy instruction in my district, the Northern Lights School Division in central Canada, has its own specific challenges. We serve more than 4,300 students spread out over half the entire province of Saskatchewan, and 87 percent of our students are of Indigenous descent, often speaking English. However, due to only being second-generation English speakers with some family members who still speak the Indigenous language, many of our students are not proficient in either language.

About a year ago, Northern Lights found itself with the lowest reading levels in the province, and we resolved to change this.

To give our students every opportunity to improve their literacy rates, we first acknowledged that teaching language arts in one class alone wasn’t enough. Instead, we set out to provide our students with a complete literacy support system that would follow them to every class and every subject, reinforcing reading instruction alongside their math, science, and history lessons.

Teaching literacy in all subjects put a greater level of responsibility on the shoulders of all of our teachers, asking them to broaden their instruction in a way they weren’t used to.

On top of that, Northern Lights has one of the highest teacher turnover rates in the Saskatchewan province. What we needed was a professional development plan that could get all of our teachers on the same page quickly and effectively. Here’s how we made it work.

Literacy PD for All Teachers

As Vice Principal at Gordon Denny Community School, I was part of the leadership team that led our transition to a school-wide literacy model.

At the time, 32 percent of our students were testing below grade level in literacy. Once we assessed the situation we learned, as so many schools do, that a large part of the problem was that many of our language arts educators were not equipped with the skills to teach early foundational reading. This, of course, didn’t even begin to cover the members of our staff who weren’t providing any reading instruction at all!

We decided to teach our teachers first, to guarantee they would be ready with the knowledge and tools necessary to provide our students with the best possible literacy instruction in all subjects.

(Next page: Teaching teachers how to provide literacy instruction; seeing results)


App of the Week: Enhancing classroom calm

Ed. noteApp of the Week picks are now being curated by the editors of Common Sense Education, which helps educators find the best ed-tech tools, learn best practices for teaching with tech, and equip students with the skills they need to use technology safely and responsibly. Click here to read the full app review.

What’s It Like? 

Calm opens by instructing users to take a deep breath before landing on the home screen. This home screen can be customized, and users can choose from a range of more than 30 nature scenes and sounds to fit their preference. From this point, users can either complete a daily meditation that’s provided, choose a sleep meditation, or practice deep breathing. If students choose to complete a meditation, they can choose from a list of more than 25 programs such as body scans, stories for kids, meditations for commuting, calming anxiety, demonstrating kindness, and more. Sleep Stories are fiction or nonfiction narrated stories that can be listened to before rest, which automatically shut off the app once the story finishes.

Price: Free,Paid

Grades: Pre-K-12

Rating: 4/5

Pros: Tranquil narrations and soothing graphics enhance the meditative experience, making it achievable for even the most novice of practitioners.

Cons: Some users may find that audio-only guided scripts make it hard to pay attention.

Bottom line: If you’re looking for a captivating app to teach relaxation and calming skills to students, Calm is an essential tool to add to your toolbox.


This is the best classroom tool teachers are not using

Is there anything a teacher hates more than to look out across his or her classroom and see a group of tired, uninterested, and unmotivated students? Teachers are forced to cover state standards that students may not see any intrinsic reason to learn.  Other students may not care about their grades or understand how their current education connects to their future success. What is a teacher to do?

It is probably not a huge surprise that students need to be motivated. Motivation directs behavior toward goals, leads students to increased effort and energy, increases initiation and persistence in activities, positively affects cognitive processes, and often enhances performance. It may further not be a startling surprise that one huge way students can be motivated is by making real world connections.

Spanish 1 was my worst grade in high school, and guess what subject I teach now? That’s right. I primarily teach Spanish.

What changed my frustration with seemingly pointless vocabulary and grammar to my career and one of my life passions? Having a real life experience in Nicaragua with native speakers forever changed the way I would understand the world and motivated me to learn a language.

What Real Life Can Do for All Subjects

Real life connections are important in every subject. Geometry formulas might be boring to most students, but show how it lead Chelsea Sullenberg, “Sully,” to be able to save everyone on his flight and to safely land on the Hudson River and suddenly you have your students’ attention.

Memorizing another physics formula may triple the weight of most students’ eyelids, but go outside and let students throw a timed baseball over a measured distance. Show them how to calculate their throws, compare them to one another and to major league players, and all of sudden students can’t get enough physics.

Instead of doing another worksheet in social studies, invite a guest speaker. More than ten years out of high school, I can still remember every detail and emotion I felt as a young lieutenant shared his experiences of leading his men during the first invasion into Iraq. He was proud to have served his country but forever scarred by the orders he had to follow, the decisions he had to make, and the men he had lost. That day I learned about the impact of political decisions, war, the military, history, and mental health.

The One Resource Most Underutilized

Most of us teachers realize the importance of real world connections and try to share stories of life experiences, make connections between classwork and the real world, or bring in a guest speaker to share experiences and expertise.

There is one resource, however, that most teachers are probably not using to motivate students and make real life connections.

(Next page: How all subjects can use video conferencing to enhance classroom learning)


4 ways teachers can supersize Hattie effects

In 2015, researcher John Hattie updated his seminal research Visible Learning. Hailed as “teaching’s Holy Grail,”1 Hattie synthesized 15 years of research on more than 800 meta-analysis about what works in the classroom. His goal was to focus educators around the idea that all students should make at least a year’s worth of progress for a year’s input.

Hattie found that most of the classroom activities we engage in have some effect on student achievement and even memorably noted “perhaps all you need to enhance learning is a pulse!”2 but he was also able to determine the average effect of classroom practices.

Hattie argues that unless a factor provides more impact than the average teaching activity, it shouldn’t be used to make decisions about what happens in classrooms.

Effect Size in Education

For those of us who aren’t statisticians, effect size works like this: Imagine you’re taking a road trip from Boston to Chicago. If you drive an average of 60 MPH, you’ll spend about 17 hours covering those 1,000 miles. Now imagine you can drive as fast as you like; 85 MPH cuts the trip down to 12 hours. Double it to 120 MPH and you’re rolling into Chicago in about eight hours.

Teaching practices work the same way. Cooperative learning, providing enrichment and afterschool programs have an effect size around the average of 0.4 (average impact). Things like charter schools, student gender and teacher’s level of education are around 0.1 (almost no impact,) while feedback, acceleration and formative assessment are around 0.7 (better impact).

Hattie’s goal was for us to use his research to develop practices that drive improved instruction and results.

Best of the Best

The 2015 update to Hattie’s original research uncovered some interventions that eclipse every other classroom activity with their effect on student achievement.

Conceptual change programs, self-reported grades and collective teacher efficacy all have effect sizes greater than 1.15. To put that into perspective, if you compared collective teacher efficacy at 1.57 to student control over learning at 0.01, 95 percent of your students in the “control” group would perform worse than the average student in the efficacy group.

That’s essentially changing the achievement distribution in your classroom from the red curve to the blue one below.

Given that these super effects have such a powerful impact on student achievement, they’re worth examining.

(Next page: The 4 ways to supersize Hattie effects)


5 apps to innovate school libraries

Apps can bring technology, functionality, and creativity into your school library program. Since apps are a part of our everyday lives, especially those of students, they have the power to completely change the way students and teachers think about learning—especially in the library.

In “Virtual Library Program Development,” Michelle Luhtala, library department chair, New Canaan High School, CT, reviewed an A to Z list of 50 apps to virtualize your school library program.

1. For libraries looking to take control of their social media strategies, Luhtala recommends using Buffer.

Buffer is a way to merge different social media accounts for easier and faster posting. Luhtala uses Buffer to link many different social media accounts including the school’s Twitter and Facebook, and the library’s Facebook, Instagram, and Google Plus.

The app can be used to type one message that will post to all accounts, or to select the accounts you want to post to. Luhtala said “this has been a game changer” in helping her get back into using social media for New Canaan High School after being somewhat inactive.

2. If your library is undertaking a project, then Google Forms, Sheets, or other G Suite tools may be useful.

As New Canaan High School phases out the use of automatic bibliography generators, they are using G Suite tools to offer students assistance as they learn to generate their own bibliographies.

Feedback Form.

First, students submit their bibliographies via a Google Form. Once a librarian reviews it, they use a Google Sheet populated with formulas to offer comments.

3. They are also using the app, QR Generator, to input QR Codes into a works cited page.

These link to breakdowns of each citation, which provide further explanations for students if they need it.

(Next page: Library apps 4-5)


ELL Specialist: These are “My Tech Essentials”

[Editor’s note: “My Tech Essentials” is a new monthly feature on eSchool News that highlights the choice of ‘must-have’ technology used by one tech-savvy educator; with the hope that other educators might also find these peer-tested tools useful. Be sure to check back every month for new “My Tech Essentials.”]

As the administrator for multilingual programs at Beaverton Public Schools in Beaverton, OR, I oversee 5,000 English language learners (ELLs) speaking more than 95 different languages. We are the third-largest district in the state, with 46,000 students at 51 schools. While many of our ELLs speak Spanish as a second language, Arabic and Japanese round out the top three.

As a Future Ready district, we use technology to engage students in every lesson, while providing resources to bridge the gap between their native language and English.

We encourage our educators to be innovative, and to weave technology elements into their daily lessons. For example, we do not believe that asking students to do research or type a report is innovative or engaging. Our educators assign writing prompts where students are able to provide feedback to their classmates digitally.

Teachers monitor student interaction and are able to collect data and formatively assess each student’s understanding.

A Curriculum Specialist’s Tech Essentials

  • Lightspeed Redcat audio systems can be found in every ELL classroom in our district. The system amplifies educators’ natural voices so they don’t have to shout and do not experience vocal exhaustion at the end of the day. Hearing the teacher clearly is critical during the language-learning process.
  • Laptops are an educator’s lifeline. We provide every teacher with a laptop, which is used on a daily basis for lesson-planning, presentations, and for visuals, which are extremely important while teaching ELL students, since pictures help them make the connection between their native language and English. Teachers use laptops to access our LMS and grade book system, which helps them track student achievement.
  • iPads play a pivotal role in our classrooms to connect students with their native language. By using the Google Translate feature, we can change the keyboard settings on iPads to show the English letter underneath their native language. We have found that allowing students open access to their native language is extremely helpful when transferring knowledge into learning a second language.

When I first started as an ELL teacher, we would use tapes to record students, listen to their passages, and assess progress. The tech essentials I mentioned are just a few elements that have streamlined instruction, making the time our teachers spend with students more efficient and productive. These tools of the modern classroom free us to provide the human element that our students need to succeed in the 21st century.


This simple change can help students become better thinkers

The math lesson on variables began with a simple prompt.

As Dan Rothstein, executive director of the Right Question Institute, tells the story: “The teacher presented the following equation: 24 = (smiley face) + (smiley face) + (smiley face).” Then, she asked her students to think of as many questions as they could about the equation. What did the students want to know about this expression? What were they curious about?

The rules that she gave her students were simple, Rothstein says: (1) Ask as many questions as you can. (2) Do not stop to judge, discuss, or answer the questions. (3) Write down every question exactly as stated. (4) Change any statements into questions.

With these rules established, the students began generating their questions. The first few were fairly straightforward: Why is the “24” first? What do the smiley faces mean? Why are there three smiley faces?

Then, the questions began to get more sophisticated: Can I put any number for a smiley face? Do the three faces mean something?

“And then question number eight was: Do the numbers have to be the same because the smiley faces are the same?” Rothstein says.


In just a few minutes of forming their own questions, the students had hit upon the key concepts underlying the use of variables in mathematics.

“At this point, the teacher can go home, right? She’s taught variables,” Rothstein jokes. “It’s just extraordinary.”

Something the Internet Can’t Replace

In most classrooms, the teacher supplies the questions that students must answer. Rothstein’s example shows how powerful learning can be when educators have students come up with their own questions to answer.

Years ago, I had the chance to spend most of a day with Stephan Wolfram, the genius thinker behind the knowledge engine, Wolfram Alpha.  After Stephen demonstrated how students can find the answers to most of the traditional questions we ask in school, I became concerned that some teachers would not be happy with what could be interpreted to be the most powerful cheating tool ever invented.

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Stephen’s response was matter-of-fact: “The answers to essentially all of our traditional questions are available on the internet, and search technology will only become more sophisticated. What is not on the internet are the questions. The most important skill to teach students is to develop the most interesting questions.”

This is one of the reasons why Rothstein’s process of teaching students how to develop entire lines of enquiry is so important. Having access to all of the answers in the world from your cell phone will not do you any good if you do not know how to ask the questions that can lead to the answers.

Even without the web as our dominant media, teaching students to develop clear lines of inquiry goes all the way back to Socrates. The role of the teacher is not to give students the answers, but to challenge students to ask the right questions.

(Next page: Not just students asking the questions)


28 can’t-miss edtech innovations from ISTE 2017

This year’s ISTE Conference was all about technology-charged learning–and from the keynotes and sessions to the fast-paced exhibit hall, the conference’s more than 20,000 attendees (15,000 educators plus expo hall staff) were immersed in just that.

In all, ISTE 2017 produced 159,000 tweets from people across the U.S. and 72 countries. The most popular topics, based on number of sessions, focused on creativity and productivity tools (113), innovative learning environments (108), online tools and resources (82), constructivist learning and the maker movement (77), and programming and robotics (70).

But if you couldn’t make it to San Antonio this year, don’t worry–we’ve got a round-up of some of the newest products and announcements from companies dedicated to tech-enabled learning.

(Next page: 28 products from ISTE 2017)


Why writing doesn’t just prove learning, it improves all learning-including STEM

Writing is used to assess student learning more often than it is used to facilitate learning. We talk about writing as a product for assessment, a subject where paragraphs and commas are taught, or a skill that one either has developed or lacks. Rarely do we hear people, even teachers, discuss writing as a process for learning.

Imagine if a teacher said, “Go write on it and see what you come up with,” after a student asked a question. “Writing organizes and clarifies our thoughts,” writes William Zinsser in Writing to Learn: How to Write–And Think–Clearly about Any Subject at All. “Writing is how we think our way into a subject and make it our own. Writing enables us to find out what we know—and what we don’t know—about whatever we’re trying to learn.”

Simply put, writing is our critical thinking made visible.

Through the process of writing, writers put nascent thoughts into comprehensible language for others to read. In their pursuit of self-expression, they often find themselves challenged to find new words or motivated to develop academic vocabulary.

Because it is a critical thinking process, writing isn’t merely an act of jotting down what you have in your head. Once the initial thoughts in your head start to flow, you naturally begin iterating on them.

In academic writing, this leads back to the text, where writers rethink, re-evaluate, and understand a detail or main idea more deeply. As Robert Frost points out, “All there is to writing is having ideas. To learn to write is to learn to have ideas.”

In the best classrooms, writing for learning is facilitated through collaboration with a peer or revision based on feedback from a teacher. This process can happen when studying any subject, not just English language arts.

(Next page: How writing improves STEM learning; closing the writing gap)