Slice of Life March 6th, 2013 #slice2013


I never thought I would see the day when I prayed to not have a snow day tomorrow.  Especially when we haven’t had a day off since New Years Day!  But if we have a snow day, then  we will lose the first day of spring break.  Thanks to Hurricane Sandy, we lost all of the holidays between winter break and spring break and our last day of school is June 28th.

Yes.  I said the 28th. After starting school on September 4th.

Usually, I love snow days!  The dogs get to play, I can read all day, and I would even get to catch up on some grading.  But not this time.  I need my spring break and I need it intact!

So tonight I brought home all of the work I need to grade.  I figured that it’s Murphy’s Law — if I am over-prepared then we will have school. Hopefully that will counteract the kids who are wearing their pajamas inside-out and backwards tonight!

More Reading, More Writing, More Engaged Citizens of the World.

Cum hoc non propter hoc.

Causation does not equal correlation, especially when it comes to children and test results.  In today’s  NY Daily News, Robert Pondiscio, a former fifth-grade teacher at Public School 277 in the South Bronx and now the executive director of CitizenshipFirst, lauds the NYC Education department for “… abandoning the literacy curriculum used to teach a generation of our children to read”.  In the shift to the Common Core, he says the NYC Dept of Ed is leaving behind the balanced literacy approach of Lucy Calkins and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, which he says has done a disservice to students.  Having taught at a Project school here in NJ and at non-Project schools, I beg to differ.

I began my teaching career in a 3rd grade heterogeneously-grouped class that used Lucy Calkins’ methods.  I attended training workshops, Saturday reunions at the Project, and read every piece of material I could get my hands on.  And I watched those third-graders blossom as readers and writers.  It was hard to facilitate the workshop and took a lot out of me as a teacher, but I was a better teacher for it. I was constantly reading and writing alongside my students, pushing them to reach higher and higher.  While they may have started by reading books that were “just right”, my mentor and I were always pushing them to follow the  reading ladder, as Teri Lesesne shows us.   Students did not stay stuck on a lower level, never moving forward, as Pondiscio insinuates in his op-ed.  That’s not the point of the method! The students receive individual attention, conferences, and book recommendations.  They read constantly, both in and out of class.  In the year that I spent with those third graders, they grew into stronger readers and writers, as evidenced by their assessment scores.

When I moved to my own classroom and started teaching sixth grade, I brought the balanced literacy approach with me.  Today, I teach high school in a co-taught humanities class (alongside the world history teacher).  I continue to use a balanced literacy approach, modified for my high school students and schedule.  And guess what?  It still works.  Which is why I am baffled by Mr. Pondiscio’s claims.

He says,

What is wrong with balanced literacy? It assumes you build readers by encouraging kids to find books they love and read a lot. But over the years, that approach has consistently and systematically failed. Only 23% of our eighth-graders score “proficient” or higher on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a figure that hasn’t budged in a decade.

Before I moved to my current job, I taught at an average middle school in suburbia.  It wasn’t a Project school, but I used the same methods and ideas with my sixth graders at that time.  I still attended Saturday Reunions, on my own time, and brought new ideas and methods back to my classes.  And once again, I watched my students grow into readers and writers. Like Pondiscio’s students, many of mine came to me without background knowledge and needing scaffolding.  Over 80% admitted to being nonreaders on my annual first day survey. So we read.  A lot.  Just like I do with my students in high school.  They read their independent novels, where I challenged them with Donalyn Miller’s 40-book challenge.  We read shared texts in class, both whole class novels and shorter pieces.  And we used Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week to share great informational pieces at least once per week.  I expected my students to read and they did.  I expected them to improve as readers and writers, and they did.  I had the test scores to prove it.  Again, these were classes that were grouped heterogeneously and included students from all kinds of economic backgrounds. High expectations yielded higher results.

How does Mr. Pondiscio’s statement relate to balanced literacy? Where is the evidence that there is a connection between the balanced literacy approach and the percentage of eighth-graders who score proficient and higher? Causation does not equal correlation.  My guess is that poverty and other issues outside the classroom contribute a great deal to those numbers.  Do we know what the passing rate would be if the students were not being encouraged to read and write on a daily basis? Of course not.  But we do know that Mr. Pondiscio taught at a school where 89% of students receive free and reduced lunch.    Noted researcher Stephen Krashen has been telling administrators for years that our crisis is not literacy, but poverty.   As Mr. Pondiscio points out in his op-ed, students who come from poverty typically don’t have access to books, museums, and parents who stay home with them.  So if, as Krashen says in his research, “more access leads to more reading, and if more reading leads to better reading, writing, spelling, grammar, and a larger vocabulary (Krashen 2004),” then we need to flood students with books and reading material at school.  And that’s exactly what a balanced literacy approach does.

We do build readers by encouraging them to find books they love and read a lot.  And unlike Mr. Pondoscio, I can share examples with you.  Take this email that I received a few weeks ago from a former student.  Now in high school, she tracked me down via this blog and sent me an email that still has me on cloud nine:

 I don’t know if you remember me but I thought I should contact you because I owe you a thanks. Before having you as a teacher, I wasn’t a fan of books or reading, but you changed that for me. I was able to find my love for books in your class. When you first handed out that reading packet, where we were challenged to complete 40 books by the end of the school year, I was horrified. When the end of the year came and I saw that 38 of those boxes were completed, I felt so accomplished, and to know I enjoyed most of those books was an even greater feeling. It was like I discovered something new about myself. I have a learning disability that is associated with reading so to have flipped my view on reading like that gave me a lot of self confidence, since it was such a difficulty before. I am so thankful to you for helping me discover my love for books, which in the long run helped to minimize my disability. You always encouraged us to read what we would enjoy…

Tell me that a balanced literacy approach doesn’t work and I’ll show you 200 more survey responses, emails, and notes from students that show you it does.  Students who now score higher on their SATs/ACTs, receive higher grades in all of their classes, and are more knowledgeable about the world they live in.

That student is still a reader, so I asked her what her favorite book is (seeing as tastes change after middle school!).  What she said simultaneously broke my heart and made my heart sing:

It’s so hard to pick a favorite book when there are so many good ones out there! I guess if I had to pick I would say that Too Kill a Mockingbird and Penny from Heaven are tied for first. I heard a lot of good things about To Kill a Mockingbird, but my brother and sister told me they hated it for the reason that in high school their teachers made them dissect every detail of the book to the point where the sight of the book made them sick. I wanted to read the book on my own, before I could have the chance to hate it. I needed to read this classic on my own without bias so in the seventh grade, I did. It turned out to be a very great favorite of mine.

Stop buying programs.  Stop buying novel comprehension kits, scripted texts, and items like Accelerated Reader.  They do not work.  They aren’t real.  Instead, they create a false sense of security because students can game the system and “pass” an assessment.  An assessment that looks nothing like the real world.  I asked this student about her favorite book because I wanted to know if she still read.  After leaving my class, students moved on to a new building where they were forced to use Accelerated Reader.  Unfortunately, I’ve shared my frustrations with AR (and similar programs) many times in the past.  Student after student would come back to me and say they were only allowed to read AR books, so they just stopped reading.  We need to stop this.

Mr. Pondiscio is right:  “The more children know, the more they can read with genuine comprehension.”  So let’s give them more knowledge.  Surround them with books, newspapers, read alouds, magazines, websites, technology, and fabulous teachers.  No one method is everything.  Mr. Pondiscio talks about E.D. Hirch’s early-childhood curriculum, one of the many recommended by the Dept of Ed, and says, “Its central premise is that an essential goal of reading instruction must be to ensure that all students — and disadvantaged kids most specifically — are explicitly taught the knowledge and vocabulary that speakers and writers assume they know.”

Exactly.  And we don’t do that when we hand teachers a curriculum and standardize education.  Excellent teachers know that children get smarter when they are all provided with the opportunity to learn more and become more knowledgeable.  So we need ELA and content area teachers working together to flood all students.  That means dropping the standardization and being flexible.  Taking the time to read one more chapter in that great read aloud because it sparked a cool research project for the class, or debating an article in the newspaper because the students have strong feelings about the topic, or throwing out the lesson plan because an issue in a popular novel or nonfiction text has inspired the students to write letters to a local politician.  Students need real-world experiences and real audiences.  They need to read like adults read, talk and write about books the way educated adults do, seek out more information the way your or I might, and write like they will when they are adults.  And we get them there by encouraging them read and write as much as possible in school.

And that’s what I see when teachers use a balanced literacy approach.  It’s a balance between choice and shared reading using authentic texts, not some piece created for a textbook company to use.  As Mr. Pondicio says, “…stops treating reading comprehension as a skill to be taught and sees it as a reflection of everything a child learns about the world.”  Exactly, sir.  More authentic reading. More authentic writing.  And the result? Smarter, more engaged citizens of the world.

No More Notes! Or Why I Love Visual Notetaking

I am a terrible note-taker.  I blame it my poor handwriting, but really I just don’t enjoy taking notes.  I never go back and look at them and it drives me crazy that I spent what feels like years of my schooling being forced to outline, use Cornell notes, and otherwise take notes in class. I have nightmares of sitting in a crowded classroom, being forced to copy pages of notes from physical science, written on the chalkboard in my teacher’s tiny handwriting.  We would sometimes spend the better part of a week just copying the notes she came up with.  Then I would go home and study for the test from those notes.  I never interacted with the text, I never made meaning out of it.  And that’s probably why I can’t remember much from middle school science! It’s also why I avoid taking notes today.

Don’t get me wrong.  I do take notes, whenever I attend a conference or workshop.  But I create notes.  I don’t take them.

Create vs. take.

What’s the difference?


When I create notes I sketch, use words, doodle, and make connections.  I don’t worry about copying down every slide or asking the presenter to repeat the

jQuery Summit Notes

jQuery Summit Notes (Photo credit: Robert Banh)

statistics they said a minute ago, which I missed because I was trying to copy down every word they said verbatim. It’s not that notes don’t work. Note taking is an effective strategy to increase’ recall, comprehension, and retention of material (Kneale, 1998). It also produces a deeper analysis of the material than reading without note taking(Czarnecki et al., 1998).  But my anecdotal evidence and my own experience shows that visual note taking produces even deeper analysis of the material and more interaction with it.

I started sketchnoting a few years ago, without realizing that what I was doing had a name.  I didn’t realize other people did it until I started following TED conferences through Twitter and blogs.  Then TED started sharing the notes from various conferences on Pinterest and I was hooked.

I love sketch noting or visual note-taking because I feel like I am curating information rather than doing rote copying.  I think about the information and I make connections.  I started wondering why this format of notes works for me when traditional notes don’t (and research shows that I am not the only who doesn’t learn by copying notes).  My wondering led me to a TED talk from Tom Wujec, a Fellow at AutoDesk, who asked, ” What is it about animation, graphics, illustrations, that create meaning?”  He concluded that the brain makes meaning three ways and that there are important lessons in these visual curations.

First, use images to clarify what we’re trying to communicate. Secondly make those images interactive so that we engage much more fully.And the third is to augment memoryby creating a visual persistence

And that’s when I had my “Eureka!” moment.  Why don’t we teach kids how to do this?  Shouldn’t they be making meaning out of their lessons rather than just copying what someone else says?  Don’t we want students to engage with information and interact with it? And why do so many teachers scold students for doodling when it could be their saving grace?  This led me to do more research on doodling and the brain, and I discovered a fabulous article written by pre-eminent doodler Sunni Brown.  In “The Miseducation of the Doodle” she discusses the metacognitive benefits of doodling and encourages us to try it.  I took it one step further and began designing a unit around visual note-taking.

Sunni Brown begins her article it the story of Virginia Scofield, a celebrated immunologist credited with some of the biggest advances in the study of HIV, who almost didn’t make it out of organic chemistry.  Now let me tell you, I had a lot of friends who took organic chem in college and I did not envy them at all.  It was the type of class where they studied for days on end and would be thrilled to get a 45 on the test.  Then that 45 would be curved to a B after looking at the class average.  So when I read that Dr. Scofield struggled with the class, I understood why.  And I explained this to my STEM students.  Most of them will take orgo, or an equivalent class, and sometimes reading your notes and the highlighted portion of the textbook just doesn’t work.  Dr. Scofield began drawing the concepts in the class and she soon aced the tests.  Doodling works.  And we need to teach students how to doodle constructively.

So for the past few weeks we have been watching TED talks in class and at home, experimenting with sketch notes.  My students started with the visual alphabet and sketches, and we have no advanced to adding frames, connectors, and color.  They watch TED talks, choosing any one that interests them, and they create a sheet of notes to share with the class.  It can be a struggle at first, because they are so used to traditional note-taking.  But  doodling unifies the three major learning modes: visual, auditory and kinesthetic.  Students stay engaged and focused while playing and innovating.

And that’s the point, right?  I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the importance of play lately, and how it leads to creativity and innovation.  Too many students come to me afraid of failing, afraid of trying anything new.  They want to know how to “get an A+” and not “how do I learn more about this?”.  As Bruce Nussbaum says in ‘How Serious Play Leads To Breakthrough Innovation‘, “When we play, we try things on and try things out.”  Visual note-taking allows students to play with ideas, to play with knowledge, and to play with connections.  The material becomes more meaningful and they connect with it on a deeper level.

One of my favorite activities in my unit is a collaborative sketch noting activity.  The students watch a TED talk together and take their own visual notes.  Then, the room is divided in half and each group gets their own whiteboard.  They get ten minutes to combine their individual notes into one collaborative sketch note on the whiteboard.  It’s so cool!  They talk deeply about the topic at hand and the results are always great.  Below are some shots from this year.


(last year’s post)

We are about halfway through our unit this year and I am loving the results so far.  The students are engaged and enthusiastic and they are taking more and more risks with each assignment.  Eventually we will work up to making infographics (making meaning with visuals in another way!), but I’m content with sketch noting right now.  I can’t imagine not doing this unit and I wish I had done it with my 6th graders when I taught middle school.

Do you sketch note?  Would you be willing to try visual note-taking in our classroom?  I’d love to know!

Resources I Use:

Speak Now: Note-taking at TED

The Sketchnote Handbook by Mike Rohde

The Miseducation of the Doodle by Sunni Brown

Slice of Life- March 4, 2013 #slice2013

For the past five weeks I have been taking Dublin to meet with a little girl on the autism spectrum.  She and Dublin are participating in a study, Animals Assisting Autism, which is examining whether therapy dogs are beneficial to individuals with autism spectrum disorder.

We only have a week left, and the entire experience has been beautiful to watch.  Dublin and his new friend have become partners in crime, and he doesn’t even react when she is having a bad day. He cuddles with her on her bed, plays games with her, and lets her lead him around the house and yard. She started out a little tentative around Dublin but now she is comfortable petting his back and head and even feeding him treats from her hand.

Last night we arrived and Dublin walked right in, leading the way up the steps to the family room.  He knows the routine!  He and Jamie (name changed) got right to work, playing with his toys.  She took out his squeaky toy and waved it in front of him before throwing it and asking Dublin to fetch.  Then she asked him for his paw and gave him a treat when he performed his trick.

Then we had a special surprise for Jamie.  Dublin had learned a new trick for her!  I wasn’t sure if he would perform it in a place full of distractions as it’s a brand new trick, but he performed very well.  When he rolled over and played dead, Jamie burst into giggles and it was glorious.  I’ve never been so proud of Dublin!

Handling a therapy dog really is a life-changing experience and I am so glad we are involved in this study.  Sometimes I groan because the appointment is in the middle of the day (especially when I have a busy weekend), but as soon we get there and Dublin gets to work I forget about any stress.


Slice of Life- March 3, 2013 #slice2013

Serendipity is the word of the day.


On Wednesday, I spent some time at a local park, with a friend who volunteers there. At the end of our walk, she mentioned that another volunteer at the park had lost her beloved border collie a couple of months ago and she was hoping I could keep an eye out for any that came up for adoption. Another friend of mine runs a rescue and I’ve been looking at all the dogs recently, as my parents may be interested in adopting in the future. So I promised to keep an eye out.

Yesterday, I met that same friend when I was working at the park with my middle schoolers, and I knew she was the perfect dog mom. We exchanged numbers and I told her she would be the first to know if a border collie came in. She had been talking to a bunch of breed rescues for a few weeks but had been hitting dead ends.

Last night, I got a call that a group of dogs had just arrived from a kill shelter in West Virginia. I ended up heading over to help transport them to the rescue, in the hopes that my family would spot a puppy they liked in the mix. We were told there were 3 very young mixed breed puppies (only about 3 months old), a few puggles, some dachsunds, and a husky mix with blue eyes.

Well, I only needed to glance at the gorgeous blue-eyed mama to know she was a border collie mix. (After some research, I now think there’s a good chance she is a pure smooth coat border, actually!). She was found as a stray, with a 3 month old puppy that they believe is hers. This poor mama is not even a year old herself! Well, I sent a text to the friend-of-a-friend last night and she set up a meet-and-greet with the rescue this afternoon. I said I would stop by to take some pictures while they were there.

I arrived about 5 minutes late and I knew the pictures would not be necessary. The love between this family and the border collie was palpable. Everyone was in love. It was a match made in heaven!

Tonight, mama border collie has a loving family to adopt her, her very own backyard, and an appointment to be spayed (to go with her clean bill of health). Serendipity, I tell you. We didn’t expect a border collie to be in this group, and the family connected with me in the hope that I could introduce them to the rescue so that eventually they would find a new border collie for their family. But because I was looking for my family, I was able to make this amazing connection. And the gratitude from both humans and canine has made my week.

Enjoy your new life, mama border collie! You have a family that understands you and already loves you! I see a lot of running and fetching in your future, and a lot of cuddling.

Mama border collie, who did not stay still for my picture

Mama border collie, who did not stay still for my picture

Slice of Life- March 2, 2013 #slice2013




Today was the culminating activity for the science enrichment class I am teaching with my biology colleague (and my biology teacher!).  We spent 3 hours traipsing about the woods with the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders and it was a great time.  We built eco-art, played games, and did some hiking.  It was cold, and even flurried for a good amount of time, but what a great day!


But my favorite part of the (freezing) day was on our walk back up to the parking lot.  I had been keeping an eye out for bluebirds, as I have been seeing them for the past few weeks but rarely have my camera with me.  I was thrilled to spot a group of bluebirds a few minutes later and whipped out my camera.  As I started snapping pictures, I got the attention of a few of our students.  They all froze and watched the birds as they hopped from branch to branch.


A pair of Eastern Bluebirds in Michigan, USA.

A pair of Eastern Bluebirds in Michigan, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Whoa!  I’ve never seen a real blue bird before!”, one student exclaimed with quiet glee.


“Me either,” a few others responded.


At that moment, I realized I was in my twenties the first time I saw a bluebird in New Jersey.  They were forced out of most areas by development and many conservation groups have been working hard to restore the population over the past fifty years.  Now, we are finally getting more of them in Monmouth County.


We watched the flock quietly for a few more moments, noting the contrast between the male and female bluebirds, and the sharp contrast between the red cardinal and the bluebirds.  It was a magical few minutes.  The bluebirds are just so bright and look like tropical birds flitting between the winter branches and few stalks of long grass.  They put a smile on anyone’s face!


I was so happy to be able to introduce these middle school students to the Eastern bluebird, and hopefully awaken a love of nature in them (even more than our 3 hour winter hike, maybe!).  Nature really is amazing!


A very blurry picture of one of the male Eastern bluebirds.  It's hard to keep the camera steady when your hands are frozen!

A very blurry picture of one of the male Eastern bluebirds. It’s hard to keep the camera steady when your hands are frozen!

Slice of Life- March 1, 2013 #slice2013

During the month of March, I will be participating in the Slice of Life Challenge.  My goal is to post a new slice everyday, and my 9th graders are challenging themselves to do the same.


Walking into Trader Joe’s is a bit like walking into heaven.  I live smack dab in between two stores, both of which are about 40 minutes away.  Thus, I don’t get to shop at Trader Joe’s as often as I would like.  But tonight we had to drop the car off at the dealer, which just happens to be five minutes away from heaven.  We made a quick detour!

Most people go to Trader Joe’s for the healthy, organic food that they offer.  And believe me, I love some of the items they sell.  But that’s not what draws me in, like a moth who sees a flame from afar.  No, it’s not the healthy eating.

I am a dessert girl.

And Trader Joe’s carries my Kryptonite- speculoos products.

Cookie Butter. Crunchy Cookie Butter. Speculoos cookies. Cookie Butter filled candy bars.

My mouth is watering as I type this!

What is cookie butter?  Imagine nut butter with crushed up gingerbread cookies in it.

photo (4)

Drooling yet?

Tonight I managed to leave the store with only a few cookie butter candy bars, seeing as I already have a jar of crunchy cookie butter and a jar of smooth cookie butter at home.  Ok, I also bought some speculoos cookies (the ones crushed up in the cookie butter).  That would be a good dinner, right?






*I think this is the 5th year I am doing the Slice of Life Challenge.  Thanks to Stacey and Ruth for a fabulous challenge that inspires me to write every year. :)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,851 other followers