What about grammar?

by Tricia Ebner, M.S. Ed. & NBCT

As an undergraduate, I was required to take a course in English grammar. At the time, nearly 30 years ago, it made sense. After all, my middle and high school English classes had grammar as part of our studies. I had spent hours with my Warriner’s textbooks, carefully copying sentences and then dividing them into subjects and verbs, or learning how to diagram prepositional phrases. Grammar is part of English, right?blog post graphic 4.23.17

Well, yes. But let’s be honest: there’s not too many of us that chose to become language arts teachers because we love grammar. I’ll bet that there are far more of us whose passion for English language arts stems from our experiences with reading and writing. Yet the question of where grammar fits into the curriculum comes up fairly often in the work I do with other classroom teachers.

The answer I have for them probably isn’t everyone’s favorite. In fact, if you’re among those amazing few who love analyzing sentence structures and grammatical constructs, I know you’re not going to like this.

The best form of grammar instruction comes in our work with reading and writing.

There’s research to back this up; it’s a subject that enough of us are interested in, that The Atlantic ran this story, “The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar,” in 2014. The article plainly states what I’ve been learning through observation, trial, and error: students gain just as much about grammar through reading and writing as they do through direct grammar instruction. When my eighth graders and I spend a class period looking at the construction of the Declaration of Independence, we’re not just studying parallel structure. We make note of how Jefferson used grammatical structures to emphasize his points. During the past week, I’ve been giving feedback to my sixth graders on drafts of informative consumer guides, and I embed little grammar “micro-lessons” into my comments, pointing out the use of the apostrophe in the contraction for “it is” and how there is no apostrophe in the possessive form of “it.” While my comments may have to be repeated on another writing piece down the road, the fact that I am helping them see the power of semicolons in their own writing makes the punctuation mark more meaningful to them.

I know this particular approach to grammar isn’t neat, clean, and orderly. I am not checking off boxes in front of my standards with this approach. There aren’t folders full of worksheets just waiting to be distributed.

So what does good grammar instruction look like these days?

  1. It’s embedded in the other activities going on within the classroom. When my sixth graders spend a couple of weeks researching the R.M.S. Titanic, for example, they learn that ship names are considered the same as novel titles, and are put into italics. When the seventh graders write narratives based on the illustrations from Chris Van Allsburg’s book The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, we work on proper punctuation around dialogue. In those instances, I may model it using the document camera or my computer and projector, but the real lessons come in the individual feedback, through conferencing or comments on drafts.
  2. It’s timely and tailored. I don’t tend to give a mini-lesson on a grammar issue unless i see the majority of the class needs it. For too many years, I taught about commas and coordinating conjunctions in April, because that’s when we were talking about conjunctions. What works is teaching this to students when they need it.
  3. It’s done with an attitude of caring and improving. When I conference with students or write comments on their drafts, I make it clear that I am doing this because I want their papers to be the best they can be. Pointing out grammatical errors isn’t done in a punitive way, with a tone of, “You should know better.” Instead, it’s done to help and support the learner. I am not simply correcting the errors for the students; they are the writers and need to make those corrections themselves.
  4. It’s done in both reading and writing. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the focus I put on sentence fragments when we read Hatchet in sixth grade. Paulsen uses a good deal of sentence fragments in the novel, especially in the beginning, as main character Brian Robeson finds himself unexpected flying a plane across the Canadian wilderness. Almost every year, someone will ask me, “How come he gets to write sentence fragments, but we’re not allowed to?” I counter the question with one of my own: “Why do you think Paulsen does that? What is his purpose?” The discussion goes far beyond the standard grammatical construction of complete sentences. Students soon realize that those fragment are used a key moments, they reflect the way a person’s brain works when in a stressful situation. A 12-year-old boy having to crash-land a plane in a lake is not going to think in carefully constructed compound-complex sentences. His thoughts are going to come in fragments. By the time we finish our discussion, students understand that fragments have a place in writing and can be very powerful, when the timing and purpose is right.

As professional educators, we need to think carefully about our purposes and priorities. Being able to read, write, listen, and speak effectively is our goal. While grammar certainly has a role in all of those skills, it is a role that is dependent on context. Teaching grammar in isolation doesn’t help us achieve our goals; instead, it throws up barriers and tends to make students dislike our classes. By embedding our grammar instruction in natural ways, through the reading, writing, speaking, and listening we do, we are helping our students gain proficiency in strong speaking and writing skills. This is far more powerful than any subject-verb worksheet will ever be.

What classroom challenge have you faced recently? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.


Discussion: A Powerful Tool in Learning and Life

by Tricia Ebner, NBCT

There is a misconception that Ohio’s speaking and listening standards focus solely upon more formal speeches. However, the very first anchor standard in speaking and listening is: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively. If we think about this from a practical perspective, this standard encompasses much of the speaking and listening student are likely to do not only in their academic lives, but throughout their careers as adults. Work across all kinds of fields in all kinds of contexts requires people to participate in discussions, whether it’s formal meetings or more informal, spur-of-the-moment problem-solving collaborations.

So considering all this, how do we as teachers help our students prepare for these kinds of activities? One of the most direct approaches we can take is a direct one: teach students the skills and strategies they need in group discussions. By taking a few minutes to break down the skills involved, model effective and ineffective behaviors, and then provide specific feedback to students, we can help them grow in their confidence and skills in this form of speaking and listening. Whatever subject area or grade level you teach, if you have your students participating in whole-class or small group discussions, you are helping students learn the skills and strategies they need for effective participation in discussions.

One approach to help students begin to see the behaviors necessary for effective group discussion are fishbowls. A fishbowl is a strategy that takes a single small group and places it in the middle of a larger circle. Those in the outer circle observe the discussion and behaviors of those in the inner circle. To make the expected behaviors really concrete, especially for younger learners, having a group model ineffective discussion behaviors can help them get a concrete picture of what not to do. Following that with a group modeling effective discussion behaviors is a great way of illustrating “Don’t do this; do that.”

Another strategy that helps students and teacher alike is the use of a checklist. A quick internet search will undoubtedly turn up several checklists. A checklist doesn’t have to be huge or elaborate. What are the two or three skills you’d like to see students focus upon in their group discussions? Put those onto a checklist, like this one I’ve used with my sixth graders. As students participate in their discussions, circulate and use the checklist to note what skills are being used effectively, and what might benefit from additional teaching and modeling.

Using checklists to monitor students’ progress in having effective discussions is useful in any content area. By making use of checklists, we can provide students with quick feedback and also make decisions about what to focus upon next. Whatever your content area or age group, consider using a checklist to monitor students’ skills the next time you have students working in a small-group or whole-class discussion.

Do you have a favorite discussion checklist to share? Contact us using the link below.

What classroom challenge have you faced recently? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.


It’s Not Over When the Testing is Done

by Tricia Ebner, NBCT

Within the next few weeks, Ohio’s state assessments will be finished, and we will be in the last weeks of the school year. If you’re like many Ohio teachers, you’re considering the options for meaningful, engaging lessons and activities in these last weeks. After all, it really isn’t over once the state assessments are submitted. What can we do with our students that continues to build their skills and knowledge while keeping them focused and enthused as the weather warms and summer break beckons?pablo4.9.17

When I consider this situation, I like to ask myself a couple of questions:

  1. Which of the standards could I address in more depth? In answering this, I consider where my focus has been. During January, February, and March,I tend to put more emphasis on those standards I know will be included on Ohio’s state assessments. In English language arts, our writing tasks are focused on informational/expository writing and argument, since narrative writing isn’t included on the state assessment.
  2. What kinds of tasks and activities do my students really enjoy, not necessarily because they’re easy but because they’re appropriately engaging and challenging?

One of the most engaging activities I’ve done with my students is conducting mock trials. Working through the process of reading and analyzing witness statements, crafting questions, prepping witnesses, and writing opening statements and closing arguments is exciting, real–world kinds of tasks. The English language arts standards are embedded within these activities, too. For more information about mock trials, check out this blog post.

This kind of reflection and planning isn’t limited to English language arts. Consider these possibilities for mathematics, science, and social studies.

Math: Take the major work of the grade and craft a real-world kind of task involving the use of those skills and concepts. For several years, even before Ohio adopted our current learning standards, I had a colleague who loved presenting students with tasks that incorporated math into real-world situations. For example, she asked students to consider the costs of redecorating their bedrooms. Students were responsible for calculating area, the square feet needed of carpet or other flooring, the amount of paint it would take to change the color of the walls. They calculated the cost of baseboard and trim around windows. They also had to work within a budget. For several days, students almost seemed to ignore the adults in the room because they were so engrossed in planning out their ideal bedrooms.

Science: What kind of cooperative, hands-on project or experiment might engage students toward the end of the year? Projects like building and testing rockets made from two-liter pop bottles can be engaging and also practice team collaboration skills. In life sciences, students have imagined themselves discovering islands with a complete, self-contained ecosystem, filled with unusual, never-before-discovered plants and animals. Students practiced skills in the classification system, developing food webs and making plans for preservation of this fictional island. It is a terrific way to review some of the major concepts within life sciences.

Social Studies: What aspects of the year’s curriculum do you wish you could have spent more time investigating? What questions did the students have? My colleagues in social studies are getting ready to have their students investigate medieval history through some hands-on activities and creations, including manors. Or perhaps a simulation activity, like the mock trials described in language arts, could work.

Whatever your subject area, it’s worth considering how taking a more hands-on, project-oriented approach can be motivating and engaging for students as we hit these warm spring days. These kinds of activities synthesize the skills and concepts we’ve studied all year. It brings the learning together in a tangible way for students, and that’s a great note to close the year. After all, it’s over when the testing is done.

What classroom challenge have you faced recently? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.


How Text Sets Make Students The Experts In the Room

By Char Shryock, Dir. of Curriculum and Instruction Bay Village City Schools and Captain of the Ohio Standards Advocate Network.

How do students build knowledge in your classroom? This is a great reflection question for any teacher at any grade level.  Textbooks, anthologies, and basal readers are often the starting point for introducing students to vocabulary, text structures or content.  This initial student knowledge is often supported by the teacher’s own knowledge, and the teacher is the expert in the room.  Students can become experts when they have had a many opportunities to hear, read and use the vocabulary and structures of the content they are learning.  The best way to give them these opportunities is to create text sets for students to work with.   

Text is a very broad term. Videos, pictures, maps, articles, primary sources, and stories can all be text.  The first step in pulling together a text set is to identify the content you want students to build their expertise around.  Be intentional in your selection. Find a balance of texts that build content vocabulary or academic vocabulary.  Remember, the larger the vocabulary toolbox the students have, the more content knowledge they can access, and the more expert they become.  Next, you want to include texts that help students make connections between the content knowledge they are building and real world applications. Finally, find texts that help students make connections to prior knowledge they have built across content areas.  As students become the experts, you can give them more complex problems and tasks to work on, pushing deeper into their own understanding.  Once they have developed confidence in their growing knowledge, they are also more likely to be able to synthesize new information or analyze different perspectives.

Where to start? There are  two ways to think about beginning to build text sets for your classroom.  First, you can start with a concept or book that students often struggle with.  Instead of feeling like you need to do the heavy lift to build knowledge for the students, put together a text set that can help carry that learning load!  Building text sets can also be shared among a department or a grade level team.  Use a shared Google Drive Folder or Google Doc to gather suggested texts for a text set that supports your common units or anchor literary books.  

Your librarian can be a great partner in building text sets for students.  Intervention specialists, gifted coordinators, and English learner teachers can also be a great resource, helping you to find texts that are accessible to all students.  There are many free web-based resources that you can use to start your text set planning.  Many of them require you to create a free account, but also allow you to then bookmark favorite resources.  Start small! Build a text set around one anchor book or key concept and grow from there.


BLASTT! Blending Literature and Science Together With Technology

by Stephanie Nowak
3rd Grade Teacher, Mentor City Schools

I Wonder…..
Wonder and curiosity are inherit. From birth children learn by exploring their natural world. For many years the hands on learning approach, or Piaget’s theory of constructivism trumped, what we now call “Blended Learning.” This type of learning combines hands on or inquiry based learning while integrating technology. This “new approach” is often referred to as Genius Hour, Problem Based Learning, Engineering, Design Thinking, Tinkering, and Makerspace. This shift in teaching utilizing technology as part of “Hands On Learning” (aka Blended Learning approach) provides opportunities for students to utilize their natural curiosity in order to produce knowledge and form meaning based on their experiences. Whatever you coin it, this process is rooted in constructivist theory. It’s hands on, engaging and when done successfully can yield amazing results.

Survival of the Fittest
If you are surviving today’s educational demands you are doing so at an alarming rate and pace. You want to be innovative, but who has time when you are mandated to teach the core subjects for the majority of your day, attend PLC’s, and constantly assess and monitor data? Now add to the mix district and building initiatives and the task becomes daunting. You feel like you are on Survivor. You find a way to survive even when you feel like you are failing. You find a way to survive when the joy of discovery has been put on a shelf, replaced with test preparation, running records, and formative assessments. That’s where I found myself, in survival mode.

I have taught third grade for 23 years for Mentor Public Schools. I continue to grow and try new things but this has been a balancing act. With state mandates it’s become increasingly harder to do “Hands on Learning,” even though, I know how meaningful and effective it can be. In addition, every minute on my daily schedule has been assigned. It can make you feel like you are just going through the motions, working hard, looking for the finish line. I knew I needed to find a way to use my passion for science and integrate that passion into the existing curriculum. I was losing this race and my passion was slowly deteriorating.

Finding Your Passion 
Curiosity can be a very strong motivator. Through the years I began creating units that not only aligned to the standards cross curricularly, but were tech savvy, engaging, hands on, and utilized a blended approach. I was asked to share this approach and I hope I convince you to be a risk taker and try it within your own classroom. I have always been curious, I see connections, and when I don’t see them I look for them. I model this within my own classroom. For example have you ever wondered why our climate is getting warmer? Why are scientists studying Ohio Brown Bats fearing that they will become extinct? What about “Where did Amelia Earhart disappear to? Do Goldfish have a memory longer than three seconds? Can you build a house out of soil that the Big Bad Wolf can’t blow down? These questions may seem totally random but each is designed to create enough curiosity to engage the learner. The bonus is that each question and the unit that evolved from it are cross-curricularly aligned to Third Grade Standards in ELA, Math, and Science.

I believe that Science is the hook and technology the bait for a balanced literacy experience designed to meet the diverse learners in our classrooms. Literature and science combine to engage, excite, and drive instruction. Technology can connect our world by bringing science to life. This is key to finding your passion again, while meeting the diverse needs of learners, and integrating initiatives.

What do you do with an IDEA?
I wish I had written this book by Kobi Yamada. That’s exactly how to approach an integrated approach to learning. What do you want to do? What excites you? What do you expect the kids to learn? Is it aligned? Is it connected? My advice, start with an idea and then use the backwards design approach to create your unit. You will start to see so many connections and each year the unit will become stronger. You probably have a favorite “idea” that you have used in the past but just don’t have time for, well, it is time to resurrect that idea. By doing this, your passion is reignited and that passion shows in your teaching and your students motivation to learn.

Sharing that Passion 
I’ve been fortunate to belong to the Ohio Department of Education Science Network Regional Leaders for the last four years. I also am the District III director for SECO (Science Education Council of Ohio). These are just two platforms of many of which I’ve been given the opportunity to share. It starts with passion and mine is contagious. I’ve presented at the local, state, and national level. One of the units I’ve created is being developed by my NRL’s at the Ohio Department of Education. That unit is Save Lucy the Bat.

It started in the fall of 2015, I stumbled across Save Lucy the Bat, an interactive book online. This book is about White Nose Syndrome in little brown bats, a disease that is killing Ohio’s, and many others states, brown bat population. What we aimed to do was educate ourselves and others on this deadly disease and the impact it is having on the bat population. 98% of bats affected die. Without these creatures, our insect population isn’t controlled which can also affect our crops. With no natural predators, farmers have to rely on insecticides. Most kids and adults are scared of bats. The students looked past their fears and misconceptions and began to want to help.

My Passion
I have always had a fascination for bats. In the past my students have researched them, read about them, and spread the word to their friends and family that bats are more helpful than they are harmful. With the age of technology, I decided to try to Skype with an organization devoted to these furry little mammals. My intent was to educate my students on this fascinating creature.

The Save Lucy website is designed to allow children to explore bats and conservation by reading Lucy’s Story, then joining Lucy’s Club, where young users earn points by completing various conservation projects. This skype was the only motivation my students needed to connect to their learning. From that point on, my reading workshop centered around nonfiction text, writing persuasive paragraphs, and journaling on the behavior of bats after watching live bat cams. In Science I used Nearpod to introduce the design process building and designing bat houses. I then used a Green Screen App called Touchcast for the students to create videos sharing their persuasive writing.

The unit continues to grow each year. This past year’s class created slide shows to persuade others to help Save the Bats. This example is just one of many that shows the power of Blending Literature and Science Together with Technology. My advice, start small, learn from others, share your ideas and your passion. By reaching out to others I captured my passion and helped ignite the passion of fellow educators. What I’ve noticed the most is that my hard to reach students thrive when I approach literacy through Science. This isn’t a new concept, just a concept that needs to be find its place again in the educational culture today.

Show me the Evidence
My wise friend Char Shryock once told me if you can provide evidence of a child’s learning you are meeting the majority of the OTES indicators. This was my AHA moment! This strengthened my desire to integrate a blended learning approach that was evidence based. In her presentation on Evidence Centered Design, Char states that, “Evidence Centered Design can inform a deliberate and systematic approach to instruction that will help to ensure daily classroom work leads to all students meeting Ohio’s New Learning Standards.” In order to support claims, we must gather evidence–what can teachers point to, underline or highlight to show that students are making progress toward doing what we claim they can do? Blending learning using this focused engages students and enriches learning.

I believe I’ve shown you the evidence, I’ve shared my passion and my approach to learning. I hope this motivates you to take something you are passionate about and resurrect it. You can follow me on Twitter @StephNowak3 and I can be reached at Nowaks@Mentorschools.org. I have several of my projects on my Blog that you can read about to get ideas for integration into your own classroom. I believe in paying it forward so if you want assistance in any way please reach out!

Seeing is Understanding

by Tricia Ebner

When I have a chance to watch a little bit of TV, I often turn to HGTV. There is something about watching Drew and Jonathan Scott or Chip and Joanna Gaines describing the transformation of older, run-down homes into their clients’ “dream homes” that captivates me. Maybe it’s because I know without those computer animations, I simply couldn’t envision the promise those experts often see in older properties. It reminds me of the old adage claims that “Seeing is believing,” but sometimes I think it might be more accurately worded as “Seeing leads to understanding.”blog post graphic 3.20.17

This also applies to the changes we’ve seen in standards and assessments in Ohio in the past five years. When Ohio first began transitioning standards and assessments, one of the most frequently asked questions I heard was, “But what do these things look like?”  As we’ve become more practiced and experienced with our standards and assessments, our questions are becoming more refined. Now the questions are more likely to be focused on specific standards and how assessment questions get at the heart of those standards.

We can now easily see how standards look in assessment items by examining assessment items from a number of resources. In a recent meeting, we wanted to see how reading literature standard 7.3 in different items. (RL 7.3: Analyze how particular elements of a story or drama interact.) By using www.achievethecore.org’s search bar and typing in RL 7.3, we quickly found several assessments that included the standard. Looking at these items specifically tied to this standard helped us better understand the standard “in action” in assessments. Now we can use this understanding as we continue to develop our own assessment questions. Analyzing these items helped us identify the structure and vocabulary used in these kinds of questions.

Moving forward, we will continue to use the practice and released test items available on the testing pages of the Ohio Department of Education web site, along with the lessons and mini-assessments available on www.achievethecore.org. Having examples readily available means that the “renovations” I may need to make to my own lessons and assessments doesn’t have to be a guessing game, where I cross my fingers and hope for the best. Instead, just as the renovation experts on HGTV have computer simulations to help homeowners envisions changes to their structures, we have computer tools that can help us see how standards translated into assessment items can look. Indeed, seeing can lead to understanding.  


What classroom challenge have you faced recently? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.

March is the PITS: Strategies for Overcoming the Transition to Spring Blues

by Dr. Bryan Drost

I don’t know what it is, but the month of March seems to suck no matter what role I have played in education: student, student teacher, classroom teacher, principal, curriculum director, county curriculum director. Kids get on our last nerves, staff members threaten to quit, testing anxiety is amongst us all, behavior referrals are up, and the threat of not being able to make an institutional impact weighs heavily on administrators.

Maybe it is a result of the rollercoaster weather that we seem to experience in northeast Ohio (last week we had a sunny, near 70-degree day and followed by a next day drop to 20 with blizzard-like conditions, only to be followed by the next day with spring showers).  If it isn’t that, maybe it is a microcosm of Huberman’s teacher life cycle (1989). Personally I think it might be a function of not having a day off between President’s Day and spring break. (My superintendent friends and colleagues out there, take note!)

Now it isn’t likely that the school calendar will change any time soon, but there are things that we as educators can do to help drag us out of the PITS.  I encourage you to try these as we enter that period of year where we think, “I should have listened to my parents and found a different career!”

P = Play some music in your classroom.  Kids as much as teachers need variety in the classroom.  This is the perfect time to engage with students in various ways while you’re reviewing key concepts, and what better way than to incorporate music?  I’m partial right now to this song on mathematical practices that is great for reminding students what they need to do when they attack challenging problems in the math classroom. If you are a language arts teacher try this one related to writing types.   If you yourself just need a break, check out any of the carpool karaoke songs with James Corden; you’ll be glad you did!

IInstitute mindfulness into your classroom. Yes, I know it’s a buzzword right now, but it really does help to create calm and manage stress for both adults and kids alike.  If you check out this website here, there are great activities to help support students’ focus.  I really like the mindful or mindless character analysis activity (why not hit some standards while we are taking time to breathe), or the marble roll activity (which reinforces problem solving skills in math class).  You can also add in any of the strategies here with rich math tasks found on Achievethecore or Illustrativemath.

T = Take time to learn about your students.  I had the pleasure of being in a social studies classroom last week.  As I watched this teacher, he took one minute out of his class period to ask kids about anything that was on their minds.  Interestingly, this was a technique that I learned from one of my most treasured professors of education; ironically, we both found out we graduated from the same undergrad program nearly 20 years apart!  Not only does this technique help you remember why you are an educator, it helps you find innovative ways that can connect kids to your content.  One student’s question that I overheard was related to congressional changes to national healthcare.  This turned into quick lesson on principles of American government. Student motivation up, teacher frustration down!

S = Schedule yourself for a conference.  When I started teaching, my second-year teaching mentor (don’t ask me why I didn’t have a first-year teaching mentor!), recommended that I schedule a conference in the month of March. At that time, I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving sub plans, grading when I came back, etc. He finally broke my stubbornness down, and I am so glad he did because it has proven to be my best trick for keeping myself sane during the spring revival. Do take those two days to go rejuvenate at a local, state, or national professional learning event. You don’t have to commit yourself to presenting (lesson learned there multiple times), but you will feel better as you engage in conversation with educators across your content area.  It may be a bit too late to schedule that this year, due to purchase order deadlines, etc., but I strongly recommend that you book yourself for this for next year now!  It does wonders for the soul.

It’s entirely possible to beat the spring blues by following these four ideas: Play some music, Institute mindfulness, Take time to learn about your students, and Schedule yourself for a conference. These changes of pace and perspective can make a huge difference in our moods and attitudes as we enter the final stretches of the school year.

What classroom challenge have you faced recently? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.


Three Simple Literacy Strategies for Test Preparation (and more)

by Tricia Ebner

As spring testing season approaches, teachers are reflecting on students’ progress and planning to address those skills and concepts that might need reinforcement. There are three simple ways every teacher can support the skills students need to use on their spring assessments, regardless of the content area.

  1. Review the importance of reading questions carefully. Sometimes skipping one little word makes all the difference between choosing the correct response and choosing a distractor. This is something we can practice with students throughout the year, on formative and summative assessments in our classes. Use think-alouds occasionally to show students how we can read and analyze what a question is saying, and how doing this helps us answer the question. Have students discuss questions in small groups, coming to consensus about what they have to do in order to answer the question. Taking a few minutes to utilize these strategies from time to time can reinforce these skills and encourage the habit of reading questions carefully.
  2. Require the use of evidence in responses. This is another universal skill and concept. The use of evidence is important in any subject area. When we require evidence to be used in supporting responses to questions, we’re encouraging and reinforcing the need for critical thinking and reasoning. (One tip here: number the paragraphs on any multiple-paragraph text you plan to have students read. This makes it easier for them to refer to specific evidence, whether it’s in a discussion or written response.) Asking for evidence doesn’t have to be complicated. Sometimes it’s as simple as adding the question, “What does the text say that supports your response?” Some teachers require students to put the page number or paragraph number in parentheses behind their answers to questions as a means of encouraging students to verify their answers within the text.
  3. Use the Academic Word Finder to identify those vocabulary words students need to become comfortable with. This tool quickly finds those terms for you when you copy and paste text into it. By entering text, selecting the grade level at which the text will be read, and letting technology work its magic, you will soon have a list of vocabulary terms appropriate for readers at a variety of reading levels, also making it useful for differentiation. (To learn more about how the Academic Word Finder can be invaluable for differentiation check out this blog post.)


Incorporating these three simple steps can make a difference in our students’ learning, growth, and even confidence on assessments. Embedding practice in reading questions carefully, requiring evidence, and developing academic vocabulary throughout the year are universal skills for any grade level and subject area. Test preparation doesn’t have to be packets of questions or a couple of weeks of drills. When we incorporate strategies such as these, we’re preparing our students for learning, growth, and even the spring assessments.


A View of Cuba Through The Eyes of An American HS Student

By Char Shryock,  Dir. of Curriculum and Instruction for Bay Village City Schools and Allison Shryock, Senior at Avon Lake High School.

Over the long President’s Day Weekend, my daughter Allison, along with 9 other members of the Avon Lake High School National Honor Society and their advisor, Jeff Arra, had the opportunity to travel to Havana, Cuba with To Cuba Now. [https://tocubanow.com/our-team/]  I feel strongly that the best way to build an understanding of other cultures is to give students the chance to meet students from other cultures.  What follows is my daughter’s account of her trip, a trip that no student from my generation would have been able to take.

In her words…

I had a chance to go to Cuba.  That was the reason I wanted to go.  It was Cuba. I didn’t really have an idea of what to expect. Now that I have been there, I want to go back. Cuba is beautiful. I always felt very safe. No one is allowed to own a gun. There are very few homeless people, since the government provides housing and a free education.  The food was delicious. We did have a lot of guys honking at us and trying to talk to us!  I am glad I got to go to Cuba now, because I think that over the next 50 years, they won’t be so far behind, it will be a much different place.

The first thing I noticed after we landed and went to the hotel were the cars. The old cars were cool.  The nicer old cars are taxis. The cars that the people drive were not in the same good condition. I liked that the traffic lights have a timer countdown for green, red and yellow!  Everyone was outside. It was a lot like Spain when I was in Sevilla this past summer. You see people sitting out talking. There is not a lot of cell phone coverage in Cuba, although people we met had phones.  I didn’t miss using my phone, because we all spent time talking at lunch and dinner too.  It was easy to speak Spanish with the people in Cuba. They did not have an accent.  The people are friendly. They have a lot of pride in their country.  We were fortunate to have a guide and a bus driver who wanted to be sure we saw everything on our government approved itinerary.

Our hotel was nice.  I shared a room with one of my friends.  We could buy WiFi cards to use at the hotel, but the WiFi still wasn’t very dependable.  People who really want something that must be downloaded from the internet can order the files, and they will be delivered to them on a jump drive.  The water system in Cuba is not in good shape. There are not many public restrooms, so you use the restrooms in the hotel or restaurants.  I learned that you always leave a tip for the bathroom attendant. There wasn’t always toilet paper, so we carried Kleenex packs with us. The toilets didn’t always flush.  We take access to plumbing and safe drinking water for granted.  There are very few stores. People have identification cards which they can use to get food and medicines.  One of the first places we got to visit was the University of Havana.

We had the opportunity to talk with 2 students at the University of Havana.

The University of Havana was small compared to college campuses that are in an Ohio city, like Cleveland State. We got to go into the auditorium building where they hold graduation.  All education in Cuba is free, so it is a highly educated country.  When they are going to begin college students select what college majors they want. They then take 3 tests, kind of like our ACTs. The points students get on the test decide what major they will get. If you get the right points, you get your first choice. If you don’t then you work your way down your list until you find a major that matches with the points you earned.  There are no double majors. Students can go through college once, then go back if they want to add a second major.  There are other universities in Cuba, but the University of Havana is the only one with an engineering program.   At the university, the only place they have WiFi is the library. It was interesting that all the students are required to take English to graduate, but the classes aren’t very good. Only one of the two students that I got to talk with could actually speak fluent English.  His family had provided him with private tutoring in English. In Cuba, the only private schooling that is allowed is for English or Music.  The campus had a lot of courtyards and open air spaces between the classroom buildings.  One thing that is very different on the Havana University campus is the fact that there are no college sports teams or athletic facilities.  Athletes in Cuba do get to compete in the Pan American Games.

We visited Las Terrazas Community and The UNESCO Sierra Del Rosario Biopreserve.

The K-12 school that is part of the Las Terrazas Community.  All the students who attend the school live in the community. They go to school 11 months out of the year.  There was one library for the school, but there were many books in the library.  There is a community library as well. We got to see the school’s computer lab. There is no WiFi, but the students were using Google Paint on the computers in the lab.  The school was really a lot of smaller buildings around a courtyard or greenspace. Each classroom was in its own building.  Students wear different colors of uniforms for different levels of school. Red is primary school, yellow is middle school, blue is high school and brown is for students in technical school. The only book in English that we saw in the school was a dictionary but all students in the school are required to take English. While we were in Las Terrazas, we also had a chance to go to a coffee plantation and see the giant grinding stone that were part of coffee processing in the past.  The community is located near the Sierra Del Rosario mountains.  

The food was really good.

Dinners were chicken, rice and beans or ropa vieja (pulled pork with tomato sauce and vegetables, this was my favorite.) Even though the main ingredients were the same, each meal had a different taste.  A lot of restaurants also served an appetizer of plantain chips.  There was no Coke, but I tried their coke-like pop, Tukola.  There was only one brand of pop, Ciergo Montego. The average price for our dinner at a nicer restaurant was 6 Cucs (pesos).  

You can’t use American credit cards in Cuba, so I took Canadian and American money.

Cuban currency is the Peso, but it is usually referred to as Cucs. The exchange rate changed every day, so some days it was better to exchange Canadian currency, and other days American currency had a better rate.  Gas prices were interesting. There are  3 types of gas in Cuba. The lowest type is for the cars the people drive  and it costs 80 cents in Cucs. The middle type is for military vehicles and it is 1 Cuc per gallon. The last is 1.20 Cucs and it is for nicer cars.

There were a lot of car dealerships , but inside the dealerships there weren’t any cars. The average monthly salary for most people was 25 Cucs.  I realized that most of the kids on the trip were carry 150 – 200 Cucs with them at any given time.  We were rich.  We had been asked to wear very casual, not too flashy clothing because many of the people we were going to be meeting can not afford to buy expensive clothes.  Part of the community service that we did on the trip was contributing over the counter medicine, toothpaste and clothing to the Convento Las Virginias.  

We also visited a community center, and a few art galleries.

The center was local project where kids could go to take art and dance classes. Kids can sell their art there.  We also met dancers from a local dance company. The dancers were really good, and, they expected us to be able to do the same salsa moves. This is not like American dancing, and we weren’t very good.   We visited a number of art galleries, and got to hear a local band.  Music and art are very important to the Cuban culture. Fidel Castro supported the arts.

Old Havana was pretty.

There were many plazas and there was a lot of renovation going on. We visiting the Ernest Hemingway house.  It was away from everything else and surrounded by trees. The Cuban people called him Papa. He wrote many of his books while he lived in Cuba and knew Fidel Castro.  The buildings reminded me of a lot of the buildings I saw while I was taking a class in Sevilla, Spain this past summer.

There is a historic fort in Havana called El Morro Castle.

Every night at 9:00 the reenactors, dressed as historic soldiers, fire a cannon as part of the reenactment of the attack by the British in the 1700s. The night we were there, 2000 people were at the event.  A big book fair was taking place in Havana and there were many Canadians attending the event.  We also walked along the The Malecon. It is a seawall walk along the Atlantic. In the evening everyone sits and hangs out here.

Fidel Castro led a revolution in Cuba.

Students from the University of Havana started the revolution.  In the walls along the marble steps going into the Museum of the Revolution, you can still see bullet holes.  One of the displays in the museum is a wall of caricatures of the American presidents ,making fun of them.  

There are pictures all over the city of Che Guevera and signs saying, “Fidel Lives In Us” and “Viva Cuba Libre.” They have a lot of pride in their country. Because it is difficult for Cubans to leave their country and travel like we can, they have a different perspective on other countries. There are no study abroad programs at their university, although foreign students can apply to attend. Because of this, some Cuban think that all of their monuments or statues are the biggest or the best in the world.   We learned from our guide that all men have to serve 2 years in the military, but for women military service is voluntary. The Cuban healthcare system is well developed. They feel that they have really advanced medicine but don’t share with us because of the embargo.

On our last night in Cuba, I sat and watched my friend playing soccer with a group of students in the park across from our hotel.

I talked in Spanish with two parents who were sitting with their children watching the soccer game too.  Some of the teenage boys watching the game were talking about both of us. It was funny, they didn’t know I could understand them. At one point the dad I had been talking to yelled out to them, “You know she can understand you”. This could have been a park in Avon Lake. I am glad that I went to Cuba. Our guide, Ernesto, and all of the other people we met were interesting to talk to and happy that we wanted to know more about Cuba. I learned about their culture, and the importance of art and music.  I saw the impact of not having access to a lot of different kinds of products or money to buy a lot of things. I left all of my over the counter medicines and travel size products in the hotel room for the maid.  I now have a much clearer picture of Cuba, beyond what we learned in history class.

University of Havana


Currency and Travel


A view from our hotel

The city of Havana

Some of the cars

A view of the Sierra Del Rosario Mountains

Encouraging Reading

by Tricia Ebner

In the past few years there has been a strong focus on close reading to foster deep understanding and analysis of text. It’s also important, though, for students to continue reading lots of books, stories, articles, and poems. One of the key strategies in growing and strengthening vocabulary is through volume of reading.pablo-44

This can get particularly difficult as students move through their middle school years into high school. As studies become more involved in upper grades, the homework load can increase. Schools also offer more extracurricular activities, including clubs and sports. The demands on a student’s time increase, and oftentimes, pleasure reading slips down the priority list. I’ve observed this drop in reading among my eighth graders. In my school, my eighth graders are in English language arts for 50 minutes a day, while sixth and seventh graders have more minutes of ELA instruction. This makes it difficult for me to provide significant, routine independent reading time. I considered requiring a reading log. Past experiences with reading logs weren’t successful, though. Avid readers were annoyed by them, and reading logs only served to make reading an even less-appealing activity for apathetic readers. I needed to find a way of encouraging reading without making it a chore.

I decided to try quarterly “book projects.” Each quarter I ask students to read a book entirely out of class and then prepare some kind of presentation about the book they’ve read. In the first quarter, students select a book and then choose from a variety of options for presenting, including a Siskel-and-Ebert partner review kind of presentation. For the second quarter, I take a bit of time to explain Paul Harvey and his “The Rest of the Story” segments from years ago. Then students select a biography and prepare a presentation to share their own “Rest of the Story” segment about their biography subject.

The third quarter project is my favorite. We call it the “Outside the Box” project. This project challenges to read something they would not normally ever pick up. They need to read at least 75 pages of whatever they select and then prepare a presentation about it, sharing what they liked, what they didn’t like, and why.

Last year was the first I tried this particular project, and it seemed to be the favorite of our projects for the year. A number of students read books they said they would never have selected normally, and discovered a new author or genre they had never imagined themselves liking. One boy, for example, shared that he had picked Twilight by Stephanie Meyers because what could be more opposite of his reading tastes than sparkling vampires? By the time he gave his presentation, he was halfway through the fourth book in the series and readily admitted that the books were far better than he had expected.  

We are about a month away from presentations for this project this year. When I explained the project to my eighth graders, several of them went to each other and asked classmates to select books for them. It didn’t take long for my students to check out books that they normally wouldn’t have selected. Another way I know this is an engaging project: already students have finished their books and prepared their presentations, and the due date is March 13.

I’ve decided to have my students give oral presentations rather than write a review because it’s a great opportunity to practice speaking and listening skills. My students prepare three to four minute speeches, and as they listen to their classmates, they note titles and authors they might want to consider reading.  

I am still trying to figure out the best approach to fostering a love of independent reading in busy eighth graders. While I continue to consider possibilities, these quarterly book projects are encouraging independent reading, and we know that ongoing reading is one of the best ways to continue strengthening reading skills.

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