Category Archives: Blog

Reflecting with #5wins

Hey everyone,

It has been a while since I’ve blogged, as life and work has been busy. Each day brings news challenges and opportunities, and there have been many days that I have worked long until the evening.

Sometimes, as a coach who works in multiple schools, I begin to doubt my impact. In my classroom, I had a regular barometer of my effectiveness with my students’ engagement and progress. As a coach, this is somewhat true, but results are often more delayed. In addition, when you are involved in so many activities, it is sometimes difficult to assess your effectiveness because you are always working on to the NEXT THING.

In the past several years, reflection was a required part of my life – as I worked on a Master’s degree, the Governor’s Teacher Network and National Board renewal. But this year, I have not had so many additional projects — which, quite honestly, has been a breath of fresh air.

But, there has been a downside.

When I am so busy during the day and I am not regularly reflecting, I begin to doubt myself. I begin to wonder about my impact.

A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to hear Baruti Kafele speak about evidence and reflection. He essentially said, “Look at yourself in the mirror, and ask yourself, ‘what is my evidence of effectiveness?'”

I feel like I have been neglecting that question: “What is my evidence that I am an effective instructional coach?”

So, I came up with an idea. Each weekend, I am going to reflect on my week and post #5wins from the week. I am going to look at impacts and evidence of growth in students, teachers, and myself. Here are my tweets from this week.

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I think this will be a good way for me to make progress transparent. If you’d like to join me, please post about your successes from the week with the #5wins hashtag. I’d love to be inspired by what you’re accomplishing as well.

Want Personalized PD? Become a National Board Certified Teacher.

Hey, that’s me (circa 2006) when I first embarked on the National Board journey.


I learned a lot about myself, my students, and my teaching in the rigorous process of certification. You see, National Board Certification holds an honest and unflinching mirror up to your practice. Once you deeply understand the standards and the expectations of the process, it becomes pretty clear where you have room for growth.

So, with all the discussion about how we personalize professional development, becoming an NBCT should certainly be part of the discussion.

When we think about how to personalize professional learning, we often think about offering choices or personal goal setting. Or we sometimes think about assessing the practice of educators and giving them specific trainings or goals. Although all of these are good options, I feel National Board does a little of both.

Investigating the standards objectively helps us see where we are successful — without rose-tinted glasses. Videos, student work, and independent assessments provide evidence of what’s working and what’s not. Feelings are not facts, and this evidence shows us where the real work is – not just where we think it is. Obviously, feelings and facts don’t always correlate.

So for each of us, the National Board process reveals something different about our practice, and that’s why it is a great form of personalized professional development.

Where were my weaknesses in 2006? I couldn’t effectively use groups in my classroom. I didn’t know how to support English Language Learners. I didn’t know how to formatively assess and personalize writing instruction.

So, I went to work learning about these areas. I asked my fellow colleagues for ideas and strategies. I read professional books. I tried out hunches in my classroom and made tweaks — just as any action researcher might do.

And I got better.

My students showed me with their progress, engagement, and feedback.

I would not have made the progress as an educator that I have without holding up a mirror to my practice, so I could objectively see my strengths and weaknesses.

National Board Certification was that mirror.


Five Tips for Supporting English Language Learners

Our nation is becoming a more diverse place as time passes. Many mistakenly believe that they do not need to adapt to the needs of English language learners because their school currently has only English speakers. However, the nature of our more globalized world shows that whether or not we choose to move toward diversity, diversity will come to us. Each of us will eventually be working with students who have immigrated to our communities for various reasons (work, family, even escaping war and genocide).

Although many of us work very hard to meet the needs of English Language Learners, we may not have the knowledge and support in our schools that we feel we need. So, I offer you a few high-leverage practices that may help you better support these students’ content learning and English acquisition.

1. Learning Targets

There is so much language that English Langauge Learners encounter in our classrooms. For many students, the environment is overwhelming and confusing. Activities may seem disconnected. Simply setting and referring back to learning targets helps all students understand where their energies should focus in class. Unpacking the language of the targets is an added bonus for scaffolding for your learners.

2. Graphic Organizers

Nonlinguistic representations can often remove some of the hindrance of unknown vocabulary in helping students better understand the goals of the lesson or the relationships between concepts. I particularly like using  Thinking Maps as a strategy for scaffolding reading comprehension and writing.  Thinking Maps are organized around the types of thinking required of students, which helps them better understand text organization and other text features used by skilled readers.  Also, thinking maps are a transferable strategy that students can own and reproduce at any time, while if we also assign different organizers to students, they have difficulty mastering use of them autonomously.

3. Sentence Frames

Regular use of sentence frames as a scaffolding mechanism can help students acquire academic language. Sentence frames can help students acquire language structures in English as well.  I recently taught a lesson where students used a multi-flow map to track cause and effects of teenagers fighting in the war in Syria. Students then used sentence frames to write a summary of the causes and effects while also learning synonyms for those terms (for example, factors (causes) and impacts (effects).

4. Roots and Affixes

Morphological connections between words in English as well as those between English and other Romance-based languages has a great impact on vocabulary acquisition. Latin and Greek root words and affixes share meanings in complex English words and words in languages like Spanish, Romanian, and Moldovan. We can encourage students to access their own background knowledge of words to better unlock meaning of unfamiliar words. If students can recognize common spelling structures in complex words, they can apply understanding of the meaning of those structures in words they already know in their first languages. To learn more, check out this past blog post.

5. Audio Support of Reading

If possible, find audio support for students’ reading. Several years ago, I wrote a small grant for iPods and audio book downloads of popular adolescent literature.  Using the audio support from the iPods helped students follow along with novels they were reading, enhancing their reading fluency and letter-sound connections.

What are strategies that have proven successful for your work with English Language Learners?

Newsela Connects All Students to Historical Readings

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Newsela has some awesome new content that is of particular interest to social studies and history teachers. For those of you unfamiliar with Newsela, it is a website that adapts the text complexity of recent news stories to five different Lexile levels. Usually the lowest Lexile will correlate with early elementary grade levels, while the highest (generally the original article) will be about a 12th grade reading level. For this and several other reasons, Newsela serves many literacy needs for teachers and students.

Now, Newsela has more resources for studying the past and present!

TIme Machine

Time Machine allows students to explore news articles from the past. Using time machine is great way to understand how events were interpreted at the time they occurred. They can also be rich secondary sources for text sets.  Check out this article on the Lincoln-Douglas Debate from 1858.


Primary Sources

One of the greatest challenges students face when reading primary documents is often the antiquity or formality of the language in some documents. Having students work through complex texts like these (with scaffolding) is often how students grow as readers. Newsela offers suggested annotations for many of these texts to help students hone their close reading skills. In addition, students can access less complex versions of the text to help support their comprehension of the original documents. Check out how Newsela supports students reading the Constitutional Amendments.


Famous Speeches

Just like reading primary sources, famous speeches can be interesting and engaging texts for students to analyze for rhetoric, bias, figurative language, and historical impact. Oftentimes, these rich devices can sometimes confuse striving readers, so Newsela’s suggested annotations and less complex versions can support students’ understanding of the main ideas and themes of these texts. Here is what Newsela has to offer for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream.”



Students can learn more about important figures of the past and present with Newsela’s featured biographies. With the upcoming presidential election, Newsela has biographies on presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, as well as the vice presidential candidates, Tim Kaine and Mike Pence.


Issue Spotlight

Issue Spotlight is a new type of text at Newsela. Essentially, Issue Spotlight gives an overview of a topic, much like a textbook entry. These articles are perfect for offering differntiated readings to build students’ background knowledge on a variety of topics in many different subject areas. A recent article discusses gun rights and gun control in the U.S.

Newsela helps us “differentiate with dignity.” If you haven’t used Newsela before, I encourage you to start exploring their site today. All of the new features can be accessed by clicking on Library on the tool bar at the top of the Newsela site.


Why Students Don’t Care About Your Learning Targets

So, this post is about a pet peeve.

I am a firm believer in the thoughtful use of learning targets to foster learning. When I shifted to using and improving my use of learning targets in my classroom, I noticed that I became a more effective teacher. My students’ learning improved by all measures.

As an instructional coach, I have seen many teachers artfully drive lessons with their learning targets, and I have seen other classes, often without the effective use of learning targets, where students were confused, frustrated, or completely off-task.

I hear some educators totally dismiss the power of learning targets, saying…”My students don’t care about them.” So, in this post, let’s analyze why that might be the case.

Students may not care about learning targets because…

1. There are no learning targets.

There may be great and engaging activities, but the teacher has not defined the goal of the lesson. So things just move from one activity to the next. Some students may really enjoy the lessons, but they do horribly on assessments. Some students may not see the point of the class.

2. Students haven’t seen the targets.

It’s hard to meet an expectation if you don’t know what it is. Many of us have the experience of having a teacher or boss who we never quite knew their expectations. How does that feel? In my case, it often causes anxiety or resentment. You may have clearly defined what students should know and do, but if they don’t know, it could result in similar problems as having no targets.

3. The teacher still thinks the targets are for the administration and doesn’t understand that they are for the students.

I get it. Your administrators my expect to see learning targets in your lesson plans or on your board during walkthroughs. And, compliance is important sometimes to avoid unnecessary conflict in the workplace. But, the bottom line is that sharing and actively using learning targets in your class helps students’ confidence, motivation, and effectiveness. Simply putting them on the board may please an administrator, but it will not assist learning in the classroom. Students must actively use the targets.

4. The targets are essentially the standards.

It’s great that the instruction is aligned to the standards. However, standards are not targets. Standards are often broad goals for instruction, while targets are measurable outcomes for students over the course of one or two class periods. While posting a standard like…

“Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text…”

…may be impressive to colleagues (or administrators), this language really means nothing to students. A better target might be,

“Describe Okonkwo’s feelings toward Ikemefuna, and cite quotations from the text to support your assertions.”

This target is more specific and meaningful to students.

5. Students don’t understand the language of the targets.

This is also the problem of essentially using standards as learning targets. Targets need to be comprehensible to students. Learning targets in student-friendly language are often most empowering for English-language learners and students living in poverty. Student-friendly targets make the teacher’s motivations for class activities less mysterious. They also create a bridge from social language to academic language. Targets should include content vocabulary, as the teacher and students can discuss the meanings of the vocabulary by unpacking and discussing the language of the targets early in the lesson.

6. The targets aren’t assessed.

How do we know if we have met the learning targets? Sometimes informal assessment like a thumbs up/thumbs down does the trick. Other times students should reflect and self-assess on the targets, perhaps with a Likert scale and explanation for their ratings. Other times it’s appropriate for students to complete an exit ticket or a short quiz. But, targets and formative assessment go hand-in-hand. Targets tell students what they should learn, and formative assessment helps them and us see if they learned it!

7. The students just don’t care.

It’s true sometimes. However, we should not make this the default explanation of why learning targets are not working in our classrooms. Saying this really insinuates that we have little to no influence or responsibility in the matter.

There are many ways that we can each use targets more effectively, and most of the time, effective learning targets and formative assessments are the most powerful components of our instruction. So, if your students don’t seem to care, honestly assess the other six points to see if there is an area where you can super-charge your use of learning targets!