In This Issue:
Quotes of the Week
“In a country where many white people do not want to (and almost never have to) talk about race, and where many black people are tired of talking about it, who will teach our children what they must know about racism?”
Riana Elyse Anderson, Farzana Saleem, and James Huguley (see item #4)
“Many students across the racial spectrum have become far too comfortable using the n-word. This has to stop, and schools can play a critical role in helping to eliminate the word from our lexicon.”
Tyrone Howard (see item #5)
“Third-grade reading proficiency matters – enormously. It is eerily predictive of academic and career success; students who don’t reach this benchmark are four times less likely to graduate from high school on time.”
Mike Schmoker (see item #2)
“Treating giftedness as an inborn trait that can be identified by test scores has resulted in severe underrepresentation of high-potential children from low-income families and students of color in gifted education programs, because these groups have traditionally scored lower on standardized tests than middle-class and white populations.”
Joseph Renzulli (see item #3)
“Phone a friend before you hit Send.”
Jessica Cabeen (see item #8)
1. How a Bird Launched Project-Based Learning in a First-Grade Class
In this article in Language Arts, Oregon instructional coach Willow McCormick describes what happened when, during recess, several first graders discovered a small bird that had flown into one of the school’s windows and fallen to the ground dead. Their teacher scooped up the bird with some papers, brought it back to the classroom, and put it under the document camera for a closer look: feather patterns, scales on its feet, a small broken beak. The class’s paraprofessional reported that she’d found another fallen bird in the same spot a few weeks ago.
Kids were full of questions: Where was it going? Why did it crash into the window? Why didn’t it see the glass? Are more birds going to die? Why is there blood on the beak? We need to put up a mattress or pillow on the window so they won’t die. The teacher, a lover of birds and the outdoors, told students that birds colliding with glass on buildings is a worldwide problem, especially in cities. “Curiosity led quickly to passion,” says McCormick, “the students appointing themselves avian protectors.”
Their teacher saw an opportunity for a project that sprang naturally from students’ earnest concerns. She handed out paper and had all students draw the bird – its folded wings, black eyes, a small dot of blood on its broken beak. Students continued to brainstorm ways to prevent other birds from meeting a similar fate, and one suggested that they write a letter to the principal. The teacher wrote some keywords on the board and by lunch, a stack of earnest letters was delivered to the office. One of them read: To Ms. Wilson. Sad news! Birds crash into the windows. Solution! Paint the windows a see-through paint.
The bird stayed in the classroom for the rest of the day, and when it began to decompose, the teacher buried it near a Douglas fir outside the classroom window. As she drove home that evening, she mulled over ways to extend this experience. Her first move was to invite the director of a local environmental science center to talk to students about local birds. “The presence of an expert puffed the students up,” says McCormick, “affirming the importance of their own growing expertise.” Two other classes squeezed into the room to look at photos of birds, notice differences in size, color, and special features, and hear recordings of their distinctive calls, which students imitated in unison.
A few days later, students watched a TED talk about how billions of birds die every year when they become disoriented and mistake buildings’ mirrored glass for trees and sky beyond. “The children were incensed,” says McCormick. “Children have an inherent sense of justice, but few chances to practice making the world more fair.” They gathered ideas from the TED talk and elsewhere on ways to retrofit buildings to mitigate the problem. It quickly became apparent that putting mattresses on the windows wasn’t going to work. When the principal visited the class, she challenged the students to be scientists and gather more data. Was this the only place where dead birds had been found? Did collisions with windows have something to do with weather conditions – bright sunny days, for example? Students decided to visit other classes in pairs and ask if students or adults had more data for them.
The challenge was how to empower students to come up with their own solutions, rather than turning the problem over to an adult “decider.” Some ideas, including stained glass, were too expensive and elaborate, involving fundraising, parent volunteers, and an artist in residence. “Methods that emerged from student research and imaginations were sloppier, more haphazard, but more immediate and much cheaper,” says McCormick. Students zeroed in on window paint, decals, and reflective tape.
The teacher decided to go with these, and students wrote to the superintendent with their ideas, along with a list of windows around the school that were having the most bird collisions. A few weeks later, students gathered outside and watched the building engineer climb up an extra-tall ladder and attach decals the class had ordered from the Audubon Society. He had to wipe away grime and use tape to make the decals stick, but he got them up there.
“The year wound down,” says McCormick, “and the bird decals stayed up. No additional carcasses were reported.” On Earth Day, the class shared its learning in an assembly, complete with a trifold board documenting the steps of their inquiry with photos, graphs, and text. The teacher had no difficulty justifying the project in terms of first-grade standards: data collection and analysis, research, information and opinion writing, art, and simple engineering. The superintendent and deputy superintendent visited their class to praise the students’ efforts. “The boss of all the schools cared about our letter!” enthused a boy afterward.
“Sloppy, precarious, imperfect,” McCormick sums up. “When inquiry is authentic, rooted in real problems, that capture the hearts and imagination of children, the learning matters. And when students have the chance to wrestle with and enact solutions, large or small, to complex problems, they begin to see themselves as change makers. Following the passions of students requires critical listening, thoughtful planning, and strategic collaboration. It doesn’t mean throwing curriculum maps out the window, but recognizing and growing moments that can serve as vehicles for real-world learning.”
“Broken Beaks: Inquiry and Activism in a First-Grade Classroom” by Willow McCormick in Language Arts, November 2019 (Vol. 97, #2, pp. 122-127), https://bit.ly/35z9bxD; McCormick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2. Mike Schmoker on Improving K-3 Literacy Instruction
“Third-grade reading proficiency matters – enormously,” says writer/consultant Mike Schmoker in this article in Education Week. “It is eerily predictive of academic and career success; students who don’t reach this benchmark are four times less likely to graduate from high school on time.” But the literacy instruction that leads up to this point often neglects the most important components, he says, which is why only about half of third-graders are reading at grade level – even fewer among low-income and minority students. Schmoker believes this is what it would take to get virtually all students up to par in the early grades:
• Intensive, sustained, systematic phonics – There is strong evidence that teaching children to crack the phonetic code (ideally by the end of first grade) is the essential foundation – but there’s no reason phonics can’t coexist with plenty of time reading and listening to fiction and nonfiction texts.
• Well-executed whole-class instruction – Schmoker says that having students work in small groups reduces the amount of effective instructional time by a factor of three or four. That’s because students who aren’t working with the teacher are often “ambling slowly from station to station, aimlessly turning pages, or talking quietly to a partner instead of reading.” There is a time for small-group work, but the way group work is used in many classrooms greatly dilutes the teacher’s impact on learning.
• Reading/general knowledge – Students need lots of exposure to literature, history, and science knowledge and vocabulary, which are essential to comprehension.
• Vocabulary instruction – Rich vocabularies are acquired mostly through extensive reading and listening, says Schmoker, but teachers need to supplement this with targeted, embedded vocabulary instruction.
• Discussion – “To become confident, articulate speakers,” he says, “Students must engage in frequent, purposeful discussions about what they read.”
• Writing and writing instruction – When students write, they build their capacity to “think logically, express themselves clearly, and understand, analyze, and retain content,” says Schmoker. Frequent writing leverages all these crucial skills – and down the road, it is vital to students’ college and career opportunities.
“How to Make Reading Instruction Much, Much More Efficient” by Mike Schmoker in Education Week, November 19, 2019, https://bit.ly/35tw4SU; Schmoker can be reached at
3. Fixing Gifted Education’s Underrepresentation Problem
In this article in Education Week, Joseph Renzulli (University of Connecticut) says the problem with using tests to screen for gifted classes is that they fail to distinguish between two kinds of giftedness:
– Lesson-learning, high-achieving;
– Productive, creative.
These parallel different ways of thinking about exceptional qualities: Are children born gifted? or Can giftedness be developed? “Treating giftedness as an inborn trait that can be identified by test scores,” says Renzulli, “has resulted in severe underrepresentation of high-potential children from low-income families and students of color in gifted education programs, because these groups have traditionally scored lower on standardized tests than middle-class and white populations. This approach also leaves out any student who is not the best lesson-learner of traditional standards-driven curricula but may be highly creative, think differently and pursue tasks with fresh approaches, communicate in different expression styles, or have highly specialized talents, interests, imaginations, or motivations.”
The key to solving the problem of underrepresentation, he continues, is recognizing the difference between two kinds of assessments and using the one that’s more accurate:
• Assessments of learning, which identify what students already know and how their school performance compares to their peers’; results from tests like these are highly correlated with family background, neighborhood demographics, and prior school experiences.
• Assessments for learning, which focus on the student’s characteristics and potential, including curiosity, interests, planning skills, styles of learning and expression, empathy, creativity, and self-regulation. Results from this kind of assessment can be used to support students with resources and opportunities and encourage them to stretch beyond their current abilities.
The skills measured by the second kind of assessment are also highly valued in the workplace, often predicting potential contributions better than high scores on standardized tests. That’s why these strengths, says Renzulli, “should be the starting point for deciding who gets considered for advanced learning and creative opportunities in particular academic domains and topical strength areas. We can achieve greater equity in gifted education programs for underrepresented populations by replacing approaches to identification rooted in an understanding of ‘gifted’ as a state of being and concentrating instead on developing gifted behaviors in individual students’ interests, talents, motivations, and executive function skills in singular areas where there is performance-based evidence of high potential.”
“How to Close Gifted Education’s Opportunity Gap” by Joseph Renzulli in Education Week, November 13, 2019 (Vol. 39, #13, p. 16), https://bit.ly/33icnfq; Renzulli can be reached at email@example.com.
4. Recognizing and Addressing Racial Stress in African-American Youth
In this article in Phi Delta Kappan, Riana Elyse Anderson (University of Michigan), Farzana Saleem (University of California/Los Angeles), and James Huguley (University of Pittsburgh) wonder whether students should watch and discuss the new Netflix miniseries, When They See Us. It’s about five black and Latino youth who were falsely convicted and imprisoned for an assault in Central Park, New York City, and later released when the police identified the actual perpetrator.
“Many of our black friends and colleagues bemoan the fatigue that comes with not just living through such events but also feeling compelled to watch, talk about, and process those events all over again,” say Anderson, Saleem, and Huguley. “But this creates quite the conundrum: In a country where many white people do not want to (and almost never have to) talk about race, and where many black people are tired of talking about it, who will teach our children what they must know about racism?” This is especially urgent, they say, because kids form beliefs about race, some of them erroneous, at an early age, and pick up a variety of messages, not all of them positive, as they grow older.
Black parents strive to prepare their children to survive and thrive in four ways:
(a) teaching about cultural heritage and instilling racial pride; (b) describing the kind of problems they are likely to encounter and ways to respond; (c) advising caution and mistrust in interracial encounters; and (d) promoting egalitarianism – that is, choosing to avoid explicit discussions about race and de-emphasizing racial group membership. It’s important that these messages are conveyed competently, say Andersson, Saleem, and Huguley; they mention the RECAST model (Racial Encounter Coping Appraisal and Socialization Theory) as a helpful resource. “To instill in young people the skills and confidence to challenge racial stressors,” they say, “adults must also grow in the attitudes and knowledge to prepare themselves and the children in their care for those situations where racism touches their lives.”
What is the role of schools? The first step, say the authors, is recognizing the stress that African-American youth experience growing up in America. Ninety percent of black youth over the age of eight say they encounter everyday racial discrimination, and they cannot avoid exposure to hate crimes and traumatic events on television, radio, and social media. The promise of a “post-racial society” raised by the election of Barack Obama in 2008 proved to be illusory; in schools, students of color continue to experience racist epithets, exclusion from important academic opportunities, and disproportionate disciplinary consequences. The result is often hypervigilance against potential acts of racism, diminished self-esteem, symptoms of depression, impaired academic self-concept, lower classroom engagement, and disappointing academic performance.
Schools must also work to “eliminate discriminatory occurrences within their walls,” say Anderson, Saleem, and Huguley. “But as the great socializer of our youth, they should also act deliberately to help students understand and cope with racial structures in everyday personal and institutional life.” This means educators getting past their natural discomfort and the “color-blind” approach to race. Avoidance, say the authors, “only perpetuates racial misunderstandings, allows biased disciplinary practices to continue, and creates an unwelcoming environment for black youth.” They recommend three additional steps:
• Providing a curriculum that encourages discussions about race and racism – “In their choices about what to teach (or not teach), schools send messages that inform young people’s perceptions of their racial identity, influence their sense of belonging, and perhaps affect their academic outcomes,” say the authors. This might include teaching about the history of black people prior to slavery, discussing current racial issues, and including students’ lived experience and exemplary role models in science and math classes.
• Fostering competent classroom practices – “Unless [educators] know something about childhood trauma in general, and racial trauma in particular,” say the authors, “they tend to misinterpret its manifestations (such as irritability or distrust) as simple ‘misbehavior,’ which in turn leads them to make disciplinary referrals rather than address deeper needs… Ideally, teachers should have regular opportunities to discuss students’ racial trauma and its effects on learning and classroom behavior, share their teaching strategies and resources, and work through their own discomfort to come to a better understanding of their own racial beliefs and practices.”
• Improving communication with African-American families – Schools are often more responsive to parents who are middle class and white, say Anderson, Saleem, and Huguley. It’s helpful to have a parent liaison who can serve as a trusted resource for parents and facilitate parent-teacher communication. Another idea is regular parent surveys to get feedback and suggestions on key issues, including curriculum and disciplinary practices.
“[W]e must keep our eyes open,” conclude the authors, “and push ourselves to see the realities our students face, so that we can create a racially affirming climate in our schools and develop safe and supportive opportunities for all young people to learn. That means we must be courageous, choosing to confront our own mistakes and admitting when we’re not sure how to proceed, showing the same strength and resilience we’d like our students to develop.”
“Choosing to See the Racial Stress That Afflicts Our Black Students” by Riana Elyse Anderson, Farzana Saleem, and James Huguley in Phi Delta Kappan, November 2019 (Vol. 101, #3, pp. 20-25), available for PDK members or for purchase at https://bit.ly/2QPtiU4; the authors can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, and firstname.lastname@example.org.
5. Banning the N-Word in Schools
“Many students across the racial spectrum have become far too comfortable using the n-word,” says Tyrone Howard (University of California/Los Angeles) in this article in Education Week. Howard is struck by how freely the word is used in schools, in rap music, and on the street. Many black youth defend it as a term of endearment (when it’s pronounced with an -a rather than -er at the end), and some white students believe they have “an OK” from their black peers to use it. Howard describes how he and his wife (they are black) were subjected to a carload of white teenagers stopped next to them at a traffic light gleefully reciting the lyrics of “Straight Outta Compton” as it played on the radio – including the n-word. “I was perplexed, mildly shocked, and sad,” says Howard, “– but not angry. I do not believe that these youngsters had any malicious or racist intent when uttering the slur; they were merely reciting lyrics from a song.”
However, he says, “This has to stop. and schools can play a critical role in helping to eliminate the word from our lexicon… Let’s be clear, the n-word is one of the most hateful, inhumane, racist, and useless words in the English vocabulary. Its history is rooted in degradation, enslavement, dehumanization, hate, anti-black racism, and a belief in the inferiority of blacks and African Americans. No student should use the n-word at school ever.” Howard rejects the idea that black youth have “reclaimed” or “renamed” the word, and pushes educators – yes, including white educators – to forbid students to use it – including asking teachers to substitute “n-word” when the n-word crops up in books like Huckleberry Finn.
A starting point, he suggests, would be exposing older students to “The 1619 Project” from The New York Times, which chronicles U.S. slavery in graphic detail. “All students need to understand the horrors of lynching,” he says, “and how countless African-Americans died hearing this racist slur as they took their last breath.” A zero-tolerance approach would then be announced, with the first offense leading to a parent or caregiver being notified, the second offense requiring an in-person meeting with a parent or caregiver, and a third offense resulting in suspension. Howard is not a fan of suspensions, but he believes using that consequence would send a powerful message about how seriously the school treats the issue.
“It’s Time for Schools to Completely Ban the ‘N-word’” by Tyrone Howard in Education Week, November 13, 2019 (Vol. 39, #13, p. 17), https://bit.ly/37DJAFu; Howard can be reached at email@example.com.
6. Boosting the Math Achievement of Below-Level Middle-School Students
In this Education Gadfly article, Jessica Varevice (Mastery Charter Schools) describes how her schools in Philadelphia and Camden (NJ) have addressed the needs of students who enter middle school several grade levels behind their classmates in math. Effective teaching, cultural competence, and high-quality curriculum are essential starting points, says Varevice, but more is required. Here are the key elements of the program implemented in Mastery schools:
– Identifying students in the bottom ten percent on national assessments and not yet meeting expectations on state standards.
– Scheduling those students together for a new math course called Foundations Math and giving them a total of 90 minutes of mathematics a day.
– Identifying two-thirds of Common Core math standards that are most essential for each grade and making “the hard choice to deprioritize” the rest.
– Weaving lessons from previous grades into daily instruction, sometimes reaching back two, three, or four years to teach prerequisite material.
– Packaging lessons into teacher and student workbooks that form the core of instruction; this supports strong lesson execution (the program draws on EngageNY’s open source materials).
– Defining the content knowledge and intellectual preparation teachers need to teach grade-level standards and instill a growth mindset and confidence in students.
Over the last two years, Foundations has produced significant gains in high-risk students.
Varevice calls on educators chime in with additional suggestions on boosting the achievement of students who are behind, including students with special needs and English language learners.
“2019 Wonkathon Runner-Up: Teachers and Curricula Aren’t Enough for Below-Grade-Level Students. They Also Require Scalable Strategies Tailored to Their Students” by Jessica Varevice in The Education Gadfly, November 11, 2019 (Vol. 19, #46), https://bit.ly/2Dg8cpS
7. Organized Recess
In this American School Board Journal interview by Michelle Healy, Rebecca London (University of California/Santa Cruz) says that in all too many schools, recess is a time for arguments, physical fighting, and boredom – followed by a line of kids outside the principal’s office for discipline problems.
At its best, recess gives students exercise, fresh air, and free time, says London, and she welcomes the fact that schools are again scheduling outdoor play time after a drought in the test-prep years. But she believes recess should go beyond these basics. “I argue for something called organized recess,” says London. “This approach has been studied extensively and has been shown to be effective at engaging students, improving school climate, building social and emotional skills, reducing behavioral incidents, and promoting a healthy lifestyle.” She recommends these steps:
– Figuring out what games and activities are important to students;
– Making sure there is space and equipment for each activity;
– Establishing rules for selected games;
– Teaching protocols (like rock-paper-scissors) so students can resolve disputes without going to an adult – for example, who goes first and whether the ball was in or out;
– Explicitly bringing the school’s social-emotional program (e.g., PBIS) to the recess yard;
– Training recess supervisors to see their role as more than watching for fights and stopping students from running on the blacktop;
– Empowering older students to run recess: checking out equipment, leading games, setting up cones, and clearing up at the end of the period.
“There are not that many leadership opportunities for students in elementary school,” says London, “but this is an amazing way to offer that. With the right mix of kids, this also can be a real incentive to improve behavior.”
Asked about withholding recess when students misbehave, London is clear: there’s no evidence that this is effective at controlling behavior or motivating students to do their work. She believes the number of recess minutes should be in the bell schedule, students should get it as a matter of routine, and extra recess should be used as an incentive.
“Q&A: Sociology Professor on the Recess Revival:” an interview of Rebecca London by Michelle Healy in American School Board Journal, December 2019 (Vol. 206, #6, p. 58), https://bit.ly/33jqRLW; London can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
8. How Avoid Overreacting to an Angry Message
In this article in Edutopia, middle-school principal Jessica Cabeen recalls her emotions when she receives an upsetting phone message, e-mail, or social media post from a parent. “While we can’t control what others say about us,” says Cabeen, “we can control how we respond.” Her suggestions:
• Sleep on it. “If an e-mail rolls in after school hours,” she says, “it is completely acceptable to wait until the next school day to respond.” An out-of-office message might tell everyone what your office hours are and when you’ll be reading e-mail.
• Take a walk. When you feel your heart rate and breathing accelerate as you read a hostile communication, it’s time to get some fresh air or spend time with students before you compose a response.
• Phone a friend before you hit Send. “Often we’re preoccupied with our own emotions in these conflicts,” says Cabeen, “so having a neutral party review your response gives you a perspective outside of your own to reconsider and possibly revise your reply.”
• Talk on the phone. Sometimes hearing each others’ voices can calm the situation and increase the chance of reaching an understanding. “If you think you don’t have time for this kind of conversation,” says Cabeen, “think about whether you have time to rebuild or repair the relationship once it’s damaged.” Starting the conversation with vulnerability and empathy is a smart strategy.
• Let it go. Sometimes the best response to petulance and overreaction is no response, says Cabeen. And, she adds, “You’ll never win a fight on social media.”
“Responding Calmly to Upset Parents” by Jessica Cabeen in Edutopia, October 28, 2019,
9. High-Quality Children’s Fiction
In this literature review in Language Arts, Erika Thulin Dawes (Lesley University) and six colleagues list the books recognized by the 2019 Charlotte Huck Award for Outstanding Fiction for Children (see the link below for reviews and an image of each book cover):
– Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster by Jonathan Auxier (Amulet, 2018)
– Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship by Irene Latham and Charles Waters, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko (Carolrhoda, 2018)
– The Day War Came by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb (Candlewick, 2018)
– Everything Else in the Universe by Tracy Holczer (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018)
– Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes (Little, Brown, 2018)
– Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina (Candlewick, 2018)
– Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal (Candlewick, 2018)
– The Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell (Alfred A. Knopf, 2018)
– The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Rafael López (Nancy Paulsen, 2018)
– Drawn Together by Minh Lê, illustrated by Dan Santat (Hyperion, 2018)
– I Walk with Vanesa: A Story About a Simple Act of Kindness by Kerascoët (Schwartz & Wade, 2018)
– Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake (Little, Brown, 2018)
– Lifeboat 12 by Susan Hood (Simon & Schuster, 2018)
– The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld (Dial, 2018)
“2019 Charlotte Huck Award for Outstanding Fiction for Children” by Erika Thulin Dawes, Maria Acevedo-Aquino, Patrick Andrus, Bettie Parsons Barger, Dona Bulatowicz, Desiree Cueto, and Mary Lee Hahn in Language Arts, November 2019 (Vol. 97, #2, pp. 105-112),
10. Short Items:
a. Earthquake visualizer – This link https://glowy-earthquakes.glitch.me/ shows where earthquakes have occurred around the world over a one-year period. You can manipulate the display with a mouse to view all sides of the planet and zoom in on any area.
“Earthquakes Between July 2017 and July 2018,” original data from U.S. Geological Survey, made by Raluca
Back to page one
b. The rotary phone challenge – Two 17-year-olds figure out how to dial a number on a rotary phone: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1OADXNGnJok. Why was this so hard? Can you think of other situations where students being unfamiliar with “obvious” conventions makes something surprisingly difficult?
“17-year-olds Dial a Rotary Phone,” posted on YouTube, December 26, 2018
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