Posted in general education, homeschool, literacy, mind, more seeds, special education

Writing for Life: 10 Things Kids Should Be Able to Write

The State of Writing in School

A few years back, fellow homeschool blogger, Mary Prather, wrote about the benefits of giving (or allowing) our children to have an anchor, an activity that they go to to center themselves, to fill time, to find peace, to find challenge. This is a practice I have tried to continue into my own homeschool, and my special ed classroom, as well.

My youngest child is an avid writer. And when I mean writer, I don’t mean he cranks out stories (although he does write stories). I mean, he writes everything: steps to designing a chicken coop in Minecraft; graphic novels about Batman and Star Wars characters; “chapter books” about famous battles; bios of superheroes he invents. In recent years, he has taken on computer coding as a more symbolic way of making meaning. Unlike what happens in most public school classrooms, where kids only write fictional narratives until grade 3 (because it’s on the state test), then they switch to biography (because that’s on the grade 4 test), then on to persuasive essays (you get the picture), my son learned, from an early age, that writing was putting pen (or crayon, or marker, or paintbrush, or keystroke, or all of the above) to paper or screen to communicate. And he simply loves to write in every way that you can.

I don’t have any trouble getting him to write. In fact, early on in our homeschooling of him, we learned to just leave him alone, and be resource providers. We got more mileage out of introducing him to a new genre of writing, and analyzing its features, than by forced writing lessons. But I know that many homeschoolers (and public school teachers!) struggle to get kids to write, and I really believe it’s because we 1) limit what “writing” is… 2) don’t give kids interesting things to write about (or read about, or talk about, for that matter) in most schools… and 3) don’t have a clear purpose for communicating beyond, “It’s our quarterly prompt.”

Real-World Writing Tasks

Here is my list of ten things that I believe all kids (from preschool to high school) should know how to write, in order to be complete writers, and my rationale for each:

  • An organized list
  • An email
  • A business letter
  • A hand-written thank you note
  • A poem or lyrics to a song
  • A personal or fictional narrative
  • A written argument
  • An informational article
  • A photo caption
  • The directions for a task or activity
10 Different Writing Ideas
Incorporating a variety of writing pieces into your writing curriculum engages young writers and teaches them important skills for their adult lives. (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2012.

1. An Organized List…

A list is probably the last thing people think of when they think of writing, and it’s the kind of writing I do most, and do absolutely every day. Creating and using lists teaches kids so many things:

  • Goal-setting & progress monitoring
  • Accountability
  • Prioritization
  • Time allocation

From an early age, my son learned to use a checklist to keep track of his homeschool work and chores. He feels accomplished crossing things off, tends to get less sidetracked by less important distractions, and gets more done, as a result.

In my classroom, I use “100 Lists” as a regular writing task (“List 100 things you love” ~ “List 100 things to do when you’re feeling blue”). This very accessible writing can be used in any subject area, with any student, even ones who have a hard time starting.

2. An Email…

Nowadays, most companies prefer that you contact them by email, and even public school teachers use email to communicate with their students. Judging from the amount of time companies spend on teaching their employees email “etiquette,” it seems that, as a writing form, it deserves its own instruction:

  • Knowing your audience
  • Writing subject lines that enable you to search your mail better
  • Keeping things focused on one topic
  • Responsible use of copy, blind copy, reply all, forward, recall and other functions
  • Attaching or embedding additional information

3. A Business Letter…

Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1839) wrote that “the pen is mightier than the sword.” In these days of email, cell phones and Twitter, customers often neglect the most powerful tool they have to communicate with businesses: the letter.

When kids learn how to write a business letter, they learn some important nuances of language:

  • How to use a formal tone in writing
  • Putting the most important points first (in case the whole letter isn’t read)
  • How to use the “compliment sandwich:” open nicely, get to your issue, then wrap up warmly

Look for opportunities for your kids to practice writing to a company or organization, in homeschool or classroom.

4A Thank You Note…

When I was little, of course we didn’t have computers or cell phones. My mom made us write thank you notes when we received gifts. They didn’t have to be works of art, but they WERE written. The end. Here were her reasons (and they are mine, too!):

  • Manners, manners, manners!
  • Everyone loves to get real mail (don’t you?), written by someone, and addressed to someone by hand. On paper. With a stamp.
  • Gratitude is something we all need to practice.

In short, thank you notes are mostly about the feelings of the other person, and have very little to do with us.

In my third grade classroom, I had a letter writing center, where students practiced letter format and wrote letters to students and staff in the building. Once a day, the “mail carrier” (one of the class jobs for the students) would deliver the mail, putting letters into classroom “mailboxes” (folders tacked to the bulletin board), and hand delivering mail that went outside the classroom. We were the talk of the building!

5. Poetry or Song Lyrics

One of my favorite writing pieces from my youngest son’s preschool days was a “song” he wrote. It had preschool words, and music notes, and was written on yellow construction paper, and, when asked to sing it, he sang it the same way each time. He still likes to write songs and raps, and perform them.

Music as a writing form
Writing music, poetry and song lyrics provides a different way for students to practice powerful word choice. (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2012.

Writing forms like poetry and songs, teach important writing ideas:

  • Powerful word choice: since the author can only use a few words to convey a big idea;
  • Visualization and elaborative detail;
  • How to create a mood using the words or formation of the text;
  • The connection between art, music and words when conveying a message.

For many kids, analyzing song lyrics works when poetry study does not, because the text is relevant and familiar to them. In my high school behavioral health class, we regularly have “music group” for our life skills part of the day. Students choose a song based on an assignment (“a song that makes you think of happy times” ~ “a song for sad days”), and then explain why they chose it to the rest of the class.

6. A Narrative…

I will be the first to admit to any child, that writing fictional stories is NOT my strong suit. I am great at personal narratives, and love to spin a yarn (usually at the expense of my family), however.

Whether fictional or based on real-life events, it is important for kids to learn how to tell a story. Story-telling is an ancient art form, and serves many social and literary needs, and teaches many things:

  • How to build a plot where the action rises and falls;
  • The importance of setting, character development and elaborative detail (even in true accounts);
  • How to set a tone (humor, drama, reflection)
Fictional narratives
Whether fictional or personal, narratives teach students how to weave a good story. (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2012.

When my eldest son moved into a new apartment a couple of years ago, he found a box with things from his little boy days, including a family favorite, My Vacation Journal, written when he was five. It had “chapters” such as “Uncle Andy with Vacation Hair,” “The Vicious Frog Day,” and “One Day When I Was Fly-Fishing.” It was written in all caps, and had more exclamation points than anyone needs in one writing piece. We sat in my backyard, and loved it all over again.

7. An Argument…

So here’s a type of writing that has important life implications, whether you’re trying to convince your dad to buy you a new bike, applying for a summer job, asking a date to the prom, or completing a college application.

Here are things this type of writing teaches:

  • How to clearly state your position
  • How to back up your position with real evidence (not your opinions)
  • How to evaluate and then choose the best evidence to support your position
  • How to anticipate alternative views and prepare for them in your argument

Not that we wish to abdicate all parental decision-making, but it’s really hard to resist a well-crafted argument when your kids and students bring it to you!

8. An Informational Article…

I mean, more than that old chestnut, the animal report. If you look over your mail table or coffee table, you probably see more informational text than fictional pieces. A lot of the “heavy lifting” of the informational text genre comes before the actual writing:

  • Engaging Topic – What would I like to write about? What would people like to read about? What are people already writing about?
  • Inquiry – What would I like to/need to know about this topic? What is already written?
  • Research – What is good source material? How do I evaluate sources?
  • Format and Structure – How does the format of my piece also teach?
Writing about our African-American heritage
Writing informational pieces teaches students important research skills. (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2012.

My first full year of homeschooling my youngest son, he wanted to learn about military helicopters. We spent countless hours on You Tube, watching videos of different classes of helicopters, reading about the history of the helicopter industry right here at Sikorsky, in our home state of Connecticut, and learning about the different branches of the US military. He learned things through his research that he still treasures, today.

Recently, when we were packing for a move, he found prints of Navy helicopters that were given to him by a colleague of mine whose family is full of Navy flyers. His helicopter research sticks with him, even almost 10 years later.

9. A Photo Caption…

Last night, my youngest and I were working on a blog article I was writing on interactive bulletin boards as a center (he was providing over-the-shoulder commentary and feedback on my work), and we began talking about what to put in a caption of a photograph. A writer needs to cover a lot of territory in two sentences and an image:

  • Summarization
  • Creating “stand-alone” visuals
  • Proper use of the “snipping tool” and other photo-capture tools
  • Proper citation for images and photos
  • Non-fiction text features
  • Choice and placement of graphics, including their captions
  • Attributions and copyright laws

My son uses screen captures and the “snipping tool” all the time, but never realized that you can’t simply place someone else’s photo in your PowerPoint without properly acknowledging its creator.

Apple Experiments
Young children often like to add signs to their work — another form of caption. (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2012.

10. The Directions for Doing Something

My middle son is a lifelong LEGO-Maniac. Even as an adult, he used the excuse of having a little brother who is 14 years his junior as an opportunity to drag out his collection of LEGOs and build. All those years of following directions had a direct effect on his comprehension of procedures, however, and he has the ability to carefully explain directions to his crew at work, as a result.

Last year, one of the teens in my class was struggling to care for his hair. After a couple of the other boys razzed him for a particularly tousled day, I suggested to one of them that, instead of teasing him, why don’t they TEACH him? This teen, who, himself, has great difficulty spelling, spent time at the end of the day writing up detailed hair-care directions for the first boy. I was proud of him.

Steps to a building a lego creation
Following and writing written procedures can be practiced using construction materials, such as Legos. (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2011.

Writing step-by-step directions is a text form not seen much in most social studies and English courses, but an integral part of mathematics and the scientific method. Writing a procedure helps students:

  • Break a complex task down into important sub-tasks;
  • Think logically and hierarchically;
  • Anticipate reader confusion and address it ahead of time;
  • Learn how to efficiently incorporate diagrams or illustrations to clarify

Unlike the narrative, which tickles the right side of the brain, lists and procedures are a natural for left-brained thinkers.

Conclusion

Whether journalers, notebookers, traditional note-takers or “each class in its own pocket” teachers, the 10 Writing Pieces outlined above can be incorporated into any writing curriculum. Looking over my list of 10, I’m wondering what would happen to our writers if we focused on each one of these for an entire month. By the end of the 10 month school year, what kind of writers would we have?

I think we’d have good ones.

Posted in faith, general education, homeschool, more seeds, parents, social-emotional, special education, spirit

Living a Life of Gratitude

Ungratefulness: The Price of a Hectic Life

The world we live in can be a real doozie…

Right now, my desk is littered with planning materials for summer school and the fall, a pile of mail to sort (most of it junk), bills to pay, to-do lists, my partially completed journal for the day, a coffee cup that wants more coffee, and several cans with markers and colored pencils for my Bible journaling that never seems to get done…

It is easy to become overwhelmed with the busy-ness of life. Sometimes, the brain can be so full of things to do, worries and anxieties, appointments, and past conversations that there is no quiet, not even on the inside. The availability of information on a myriad of electronic devices only makes this worse.

Our kids feel the same pressure. And, in a paradox that hurts the hearts of people in my generation, they eschew the very things that ease the heart of a small child: sunshine, unstructured play, face-to-face time with friends, family outings.

It is not surprising that, in all that busy-ness, people of all ages become bitter and negative about things. We miss the good things that we have, because we are so focused on what we need to do and what we don’t have.

Building Gratitude

Fortunately, it is never too late to teach ourselves and our kids how to be grateful. Building gratitude starts with small steps, just like learning to read. These small steps cause us to pause in a hectic life, and consider the goodness that we already have. By simply changing the way we think about events, we can learn to be content in all things, as the Apostle Paul taught us.

Ten Ways to Practice Gratitude

Learning to be grateful is a process. Here are ten simple things anyone can do to begin a lifetime practice of gratitude.

  1. Say “thank you,” and say it often. Saying “thank you” isn’t just good manners. It lets the other person know that you appreciate him and what he’s done for you. My husband and children always says thank you to me after a meal, and we always say thank you to my husband when he cooks – we give thanks to God, and then honor the cook! Thank the postal carrier, thank the cashier at Stop and Shop… just say, “Thank you!”
  2. Recognize “stinking thinking” – and eliminate it. I once worked with an excellent teacher at a correctional facility.She had a poster in the front of the room entitled, “Accountable Speech.” On one side, she wrote negative self-statements her students made: “I’m so stupid” – “We’ll never get jobs” – “I can’t do that” – “That’s just how it is.” Next to each statement, she re-wrote it with a positive mindset: “I don’t understand that – can you explain it to me?” – “I need help finding a good job” – “I can’t do that YET” – “That’s how it was – but things can change.” Re-think the words you speak over yourself. Build yourself up with your own words.
  3. Share 3 good things that happen to you each day. When my kids were little, it was like pulling teeth to find out how their days were. So, during our afterschool snack, I asked them to tell me three good things and one not-so-good thing. This helped them focus on the good (even if it was “Jacob’s mom brought in cupcakes for his birthday”) and still honors thThee bumps in the road – in a balanced way. Try it with your kids.
  4. Make a “100 list.” I had a class once that included quite a few teens with depression and anxiety. I started this task when one of them was going through a rough patch. They grew to like it so much that they asked to be able to do it on days that weren’t going so well for the class – instead of the scheduled task. Simply start a list of things that you are thankful for. The idea is that the first 25 are rather concrete and often materialistic (new jewelry, a vacation, payday…). As you get to 75 and above, however, you get to the real things to be thankful for: still being alive, being clean and sober, being reunited with family…
  5. Start a gratitude journal. It can be devoting one day a week (maybe Sunday) to a gratitude entry in the journal or planner you already use. Or you can challenge yourself, for 30 days, to write down one thing you’re grateful for, each day. Just write it down!
  6. Complete a Gratitude Challenge. There are so many 30-day challenges online these days. Pick one and dedicate yourself to it for a month. If you’re really dedicated and committed, try working through Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy for an entire year.
  7. Think of the upside of things. My pastor used to say, “Don’t complain about the light bill. Thank God you have electricity. Some don’t.” For almost any trouble you have, you can take the “glass half full” viewpoint. When you catch yourself (or your kids) looking at a half-empty glass, rephrase the statement.
  8. Give up something you love for a week. A friend of mine used to have her kids each pick out 2-3 toys to keep in their rooms. The rest would be lovingly packed and put in the attic. Every month or so, they’d “shop” in the attic, swapping out their toys for ones they stored. They grew to better appreciate the ones they kept in their rooms, as well as the ones in storage. Try doing without something for a time – you’ll be more grateful for it when you return to it!
  9. Start and end your day with gratitude. My journal has space for me to write down 3 things that I am grateful for upon awaking, and 3 things I am grateful for before retiring for the evening. I made a word cloud of June’s entries – the bigger the word, the more times I mentioned it. This was a good reminder for me about what really matters.
  10. Read one prayer of thanksgiving from the Bible, each day. King David wrote many songs of thanksgiving in the book of Psalms. If you’re not sure what a prayer of thanksgiving is, All About Prayer has a good article to read.
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gratitude word cloud
My June gratitude word cloud… The bigger the word, the more times I mentioned it in the month.

Find Peace in Gratitude

As a parting thought, I want to share with you a gospel song that gets me in the tear ducts and heart every time I sing it. Blessings to you, and God bless your journey toward a life of gratitude.

Posted in general education, homeschool, mind, more seeds, special education

Top 30 Trends in Education

What’s Hot in Education?

If you’ve been in education for long enough, you know that there are certain topics that everyone seems to be discussing. TeachThought put together a list of the top 30 trending topics in education last summer. They based their ranking on five metrics: 1) top results from popular search engine data; 2) TeachThought’s own search data; 3) traffic and search data from popular education websites; 4) social media data; 5) TeachThought’s editorial board’s impressions as experts in the field.

The Hottest Topics in Education Today, Explained

Below are concise definitions of the top 30 educational trends today, with links to experts on each topic. Which ones are hot topics in your district? Which ones pique your interest?

Growth Mindset : “In a fixed mindset, individuals believe their basic abilities, and talents are fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset, individuals understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.” ~ Carol Dweck, Mindset

Maker Learning: ” Maker education is a type of project-based learning that relies on hands-on learning experiences. Within maker education, projects often focus on solving real problems students face and involve taking a project from concept to reality in order to demonstrate learning.” ~ Sparkfun Education

Bloom’s Taxonomy: ” Bloom’s taxonomy is a classification system used to define and distinguish different levels of human cognition—i.e., thinking, learning, and understanding. Educators have typically used Bloom’s taxonomy to inform or guide the development of assessments(tests and other evaluations of student learning), curriculum (units, lessons, projects, and other learning activities), and instructional methods such as questioning strategies.” ~ The Glossary of Education Reform

Digital Citizenship / Learning: ” Digital Citizenship is a concept which helps teachers, technology leaders and parents to understand what students/children/technology users should know to use technology appropriately… Digital citizenship is the continuously developing norms of appropriate, responsible, and empowered technology use.” ~ Digital Citizenship

Personalized Learning: “Personalized learning is an educational approach that aims to customize learning for each student’s strengths, needs, skills and interests. Each student gets a learning plan that’s based on what he knows and how he learns best. ” ~ Understood

hot topics in education
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Current education trends focus on multiple ways for students to engage, interact and express their learning. {Image credit: (c) 2014, Kim M. Bennett

Project-Based Learning: ” Project Based Learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.” ~ PBL Works

Team-Building for Learning: Team building is a process that develops cooperation and teamwork within a work unit. To constitute an effective team, its members must share a common goal, have respect for each other, and be motivated to use the strengths of each member to achieve their objectives. ” ~ WiseGeek

Blended Learning: “Blended learning is a term used to describe the way e-learning is being combined with traditional classroom methods and independent study to create a new, hybrid teaching methodology.” ~ MindFlash

Genius Hour: “Genius hour is a movement that allows students to explore their own passions and encourages creativity in the classroom. It provides students a choice in what they learn during a set period of time during school. ” ~ Kesler Science

Teaching Empathy: “Empathy is the ability to share and understand other peoples feelings. By teaching empathy in the classroom students learn to understand one another and build friendships based on trust. Teaching empathy could be one of the answers to decreasing bullying.” ~ The Chalkboard

hot topics in education
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21st Century Skills include social-emotional learning, such as practicing empathy and charity. {Image credit: (c) 2007, born1945 via Creative Commons}

Pushing Back on Education Technology: “Technology has great benefits for schools. However, any conversation that does not include the potential dangers of the widespread use of technology would not be complete. Here, experts share the dark side of technology when it comes to its use in schools.” ~ The Edvocate

Social/Emotional Learning: “Social-emotional learning is the process of developing students’ knowledge, attitudes and skills to manage emotions, build healthy relationships, set goals and make decisions. Social-emotional skills are essential for working with others, building resiliency, achieving goals and reducing bullying and risk behaviors (e.g., substance use).” ~ Government of Alberta

Alternatives to Traditional “School”: “Most parents consider only brick-and-mortar facilities for their children’s education. Here are five alternative education styles for the parent who is ready, and willing, to put in time and effort (and sometimes money) to make a change.” ~ Mom.me

Robotics/Coding: Robotics is the study of robots. Coding is what makes it possible for us to create robots, as well as computer software, apps and websites. A web browser, your computer’s operating system, the apps on your phone, your Twitter feed… all depend on computer coding and machines. ~ Code Conquest

Alternatives to Letter Grades: “The letter grade fails because its job–to communicate learning results to learners and families—cannot possibly be performed a single symbol.” Here are alternatives to letter grades for evaluating student work. ~ Teachers With Apps

Alternative forms of assessing and grading, as well as different formats for delivering instruction, offer different ways to teach and and evaluate. {Image credit: (c) 2010, Kim M. Bennett}

Brain-based Learning: “Related terms such as brain-based education or brain-based teaching, like brainbased learning, refer to instructional techniques that are grounded in the neuroscience of learning—i.e., scientific findings are used to inform educational strategies and programs.”~ The Glossary of Educational Reform

Gamification: “Gamification is the process of taking something that already exists – a website, an enterprise application, an online community – and integrating game play into it to motivate participation, engagement and cooperation.” ~ BunchBall

Adaptive Learning Algorithm: “Adaptive learning, also known as adaptive teaching, is an educational method which uses computer algorithms to deliver customized resources and learning activities to address the unique needs of each learner.” ~ Growth Engineering

Game-based Learning: “Game-based learning (GBL) is a type of game play that has defined learning outcomes. Generally, game-based learning is designed to balance subject matter with game play and the ability of the player to retain, and apply the subject matter to the real world.” ~ GameLearn

Mobile Learning: “Mobile learning (m-learning) is education via the Internet or network using personal mobile devices, such as tablets and smartphones to obtain learning materials through mobile apps, social interactions and online educational hubs.” ~ Webopedia

Responsible use of technology, including students’ own, and game play as a learning technique, are current topics in education. {Image credit: (c) 2017, Kim M. Bennett}

Self-directed Learning: “Self directed learning is a way of creating a situation where learning is owned by the individual and aligned with organisational needs. Individuals take responsibility for decisions about their learning and work with others to achieve it.” ~ Brefi Group

Artificial Intelligence: “Artificial intelligence (AI) is an area of computer science that emphasizes the creation of intelligent machines that work and react like humans. Some of the activities computers with artificial intelligence are designed for include speech recognition, learning, planning and problem-solving.” ~ Techopedia

Micro-education: “Micro-learning is learning in smaller segments and goes hand in hand with traditional e Learning. Activities include short-term lessons, projects, or assignments with smaller amounts of information. ” ~ Digital Chalkboard

Modular Education: “Modular education partitions degrees into smaller, Lego-like building blocks of learning, each with their own credentials, learning and skills outcomes.” ~ Forbes Magazine

Sociocultural / Socioeconomic Equity: “Sociocultural and socioeconomic equity relates to diversity and equality based on race and other measures of social difference such as age, class, and disability status.” ~ Create Equity

Today’s climate makes discussion of concepts of fairness, equity and social justice important discussions in the classroom.

Flipped Classroom: “A flipped classroom consists of students completing direct instruction, such as viewing a lecture online, prior to the in-class discussion of the material. The intent is for students to see the material beforehand, also known as first-exposure learning, so they can learn the concepts at their own pace.” ~ Study.com

Scenario-based Learning: “Scenario Based Learning (SBL) is used extensively as a learner strategy in online learning. Not only does it provide high learner engagement as scenarios depict real life situations making them relatable, it also provides a safe environment to practice and understand consequences of their action.” ~ Adobe

BYOD/BYOT: BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) is a technology in which consumers bring their own software and hardward devices into an establishment for work or learning. Similarly, BYOT (Bring Your Own Technology) refers to the use of consumer devices and applications in work or school.) ~ TechTarget.

Social Media in the Classroom: “Social media provides venues for students to share their stories both within and beyond the classroom. It also grants opportunities for them to hear stories from beyond their school. Finally, being connected helps students recognize the power of personal voice.” ~ Education Week

Digital Portfolios: “Digital portfolios provide a compilation of an individual’s best work, including texts, photographs, illustrations, diagrams, web materials, audio files, spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations, that capture a person’s versatility and learning.” ~ Classroom

Hands-on, real-world and project-based learning are alternative ways to prepare students for 21st Century life. {Image credit (c) 2014, Kim M. Bennett}

Current Topics in Your School

What are the most important topics in your district, right now? Drop a note in the comments section.

Posted in general education, homeschool, literacy, mind, more seeds, special education, Uncategorized

Ten Writing Strategies to Jump-Start the Reluctant Writer

The Problem of the Blank Page

I remember my first public school teaching position. We were required to administer writing prompts to our students on a quarterly basis (for the district), but were encouraged to repeat the process in between for evaluating student progress.

Every quarter, my colleagues and I would sit and collaboratively score our prompts. Every quarter, we had a pile of prompts that were scored as zeroes or ones out of 12, simply because the pages were blank, or nearly so.

Fast forward to my time as a consultant, where, once again, I was meeting with teachers (kindergarten, third grade, tenth grade – it didn’t matter) who were faced with the dilemma of what to do with a stack of writing papers that were blank. Sometimes the students were students with disabilities. Usually they were not. The teachers had lessons for teaching elaboration, or paragraph structure, or citing sources correctly. But what to do about the student who sat in front of a blank page for 45 minutes?

writing strategies
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blank page
For many students, the writing process gets stalled from the start when they face an empty page. {Image credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2016}

Common Causes for the “Empty Page Syndrome”

During data team meetings, we would look at that pile of low-scored prompts, and ask ourselves questions about why each student failed to gain more than two points on the prompt. {I will refer to this as the “Empty Page Syndrome,” because, like any other syndrome, it is a cluster of symptoms that has a singular, often difficult to see, reason behind it.} In order to do this, we had to think about each individual student, and look at the story behind the numbers. Assuming the prompt was read to all students (something teachers are allowed to do), the student is physically able to write, and critical vocabulary was explained (again, something that is allowed by the assessment), what are the common reasons for not scoring on a writing prompt?

  • No ideas on how to respond to the prompt;
  • Had ideas, but took to long thinking and/or planning and didn’t start on time;
  • Lacked stamina to write enough for a well-developed response;
  • Wrote sufficiently, but response was off-topic;
  • Refused to write because writing tasks are historically too complex for the student.

Almost all cases of writing “refusal” and empty responses can be attributed to one of these causes. By breaking down and addressing one of these specific obstacles, we can get students to begin the writing process and get out of the starting gate.

writing strategies
writing refusal
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Refusal to write can often be attributed to the student’s lack of confidence in his writing skills. {Image credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2017}

Ten Focused Writing Strategies to Use With Reluctant Writers

Here are the ten strategies I’ve used to help writers of all ages to begin the writing process, whether it’s in reading response work, answering social studies chapter questions, or completing a writing prompt. Each of these would be used INSTEAD of the actual written response work. NOTE: Remember ~ these strategies are to be used to help students get from NOTHING to SOMETHING; most of these are not suitable for refining the work of students who write sufficiently but miss the mark in some other way.

To score written tasks as you are working through these strategies, a response would be considered sufficient if the student used the strategy successfully. Once the strategy is mastered, you can add other components to the tasks. {NOTE: These also make good starting points for IEP goals and objectives for writing.}

writing strategies
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writing skills
When a student lacks certain writing skills, or is not confident in his abilities, the writing process often ends before it can really begin. {Image credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2018}

For the Student with No Ideas:

For students who aren’t sure what to write, the focus of these strategies is on understanding the prompt or question and having a plan for how to respond to it.

  1. Restate the question in your own words. Instead of answering the questions, the student will state, in his own words, what the question is asking him to do. This also allows you to see if the student understands the task, at all. {This works GREAT in math class, too}.
  2. Write 3 ideas that you can use in the answer. This allows the student to share a small number her ideas without feeling overwhelmed by the whole writing process. The ideas can later be turned into a response, if you wish.

For the Student Who Needs Writing Stamina:

For most of my current students, I just want to get them to write more than a sentence or two. In order to build endurance, I use a variety of strategies that focus on the simply putting pen to paper for a specific amount of space or time. The content, right now, is not important. I even told one student, “Just write ‘I don’t know what to write” over and over until the bell goes off.” He did.

  1. Write X lines. Sometimes, students have a hard time knowing when a written response is completed. By giving the student a target number of lines to fill (which can change as students build endurance), they can easily see when they are “done.”
  2. Fill the time. I often start with 5 minutes, then move up in 5 minute increments to 15 minutes, then upward in 15 minute increments to 45, with the goal that students should be able to write for a full class period, including planning, writing, revision and editing. This is an easy strategy to use with daily journaling.
  3. Fill the space. Some students don’t understand that you can’t write a high-quality response with too few words. In this strategy, students must write enough to fill in all the space provided. This strategy can be used with all ages, and for all subject areas.

For the Student Who Has Trouble With Time Management:

For students who need to use MORE time to write, you can use the “Fill the Time” strategy (described above). For students who get lost in their thinking, I would use the next strategy.

  1. Start within 5 minutes. I set a time for 5 minutes, then make a check mark next to any student who is actively writing anything. Students sitting and still looking at their paper would not get a check.

For the Student Who Writes Off Topic:

I once knew a second grader with autism, who only wanted to write about robots. Sometimes, he’d start writing about the prompt, but he’d always end up writing a robot story. If he was told that the prompt was about something else, he would refuse to write.

  1. List X words or ideas that are related to the prompt. To help students focus better on the topic, a good starting place would be just to list words, phrases and ideas that are related, no matter how obtusely. Simply drawing their attention to the topic initially, often keeps them on the right track in their response.
  2. Cross out X ideas that don’t relate to the prompt. I have a teen student now whose writing is a full page of scattered words, phrases and doodles. On the same page will be names of rap artists, swear words, love notes to his mom, random words copied from the board, and, usually, some content that answers the question. He has an IEP goal of taking this writing and crossing out ten things that don’t match the prompt. This is easier for him than stopping the flow of random ideas.
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Word banks and other strategies can make writing tasks simpler for reluctant writers. {Image credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2015}

For the Student Who Needs a Simpler Task:

Sometimes, the student’s skills in writing (or lack of skills) make the whole process uncomfortable for them, so they avoid or refuse it. For these students, consider a strategy that is focused on what their learning obstacles are:

  1. Use a word/idea bank . Providing a word bank with key words or ideas helps students who aren’t sure if they understand the prompt, have difficulties with recall, struggle with spelling, or just need a place to start. You can even teach students how to create their own word/idea bank from the prompt, itself, as a next step.
  2. Write X sentences. Sometimes, organizing a whole essay is too much for a student. In this case, reducing the prompt to a certain number of sentences makes the goal more attainable. You can also use the “Write X Lines” strategy, if sentence construction is challenging.

Looking for Writing Resources?

If you are looking for notebook resources that you can use with your struggling writers, check out my Teachers Pay Teachers materials.

https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Store/Kim-Bennett-6153
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Please visit my Teachers Pay Teachers store for writing resources for all ages.

Posted in homeschool, more seeds, outdoor education, parents, spirit

Getting Outside with Children

The Benefits of Outdoor Time

It seems like I never quite get my garden in when other folks do. By the time the school year wraps up, it’s almost the 4th of July. I recently spent a rainy day planning a small kitchen garden that I’m going to install this weekend…

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A small garden can afford time to refresh oneself outside… and provides learning opportunities for children, too. {Image credit: (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2019}

When I get outside, even to sweep the sidewalk, pull a few weeds, or just sit and drink my coffee on the patio, I feel peaceful. My mind and heart empty of all the stresses of the day, and I can hear God talking.

Nature Study and Outdoor Learning

The outdoors is an excellent classroom, not only for “summer school,” but for any time of year. Don’t worry about structuring the time – 15 minutes a day, with an opportunity to talk, write or draw about the time, is all that is needed to spark creativity and connect a child to the world. Of course, once they’re hooked, they will want to be outside for hours (see this post about Charlotte Mason’s view on children and the outdoors).

See my Nature Study and Outdoor Classrooms board for some ideas on how to use your outdoor space as a peaceful learning place.

Summer Outdoor Learning

Whether you’re homeschooling all year, looking for enrichment for kiddos home from a brick-and-mortar school, or just wanting some fun things to do with your children during the summer, check out some of our favorite summer nature activities:

  1. The Mathematics of Nature: Fractals
  2. Beaches, Beaches, Everywhere!
  3. Summer Bird Study: Blue Jays
  4. Nature Study Notebooks and Literacy
  5. A Little Fun with our Feathered Friends
  6. The Nightshade Family (and a Little Surprise)

What are you doing with your kids this summer? Let me know in the comments section! Share a link…


{ This blog is featured in Top 100 Special Education Blogs}

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Handbook of Nature Study, Amazon ~ Click for details…
Posted in general education, homeschool, how-to, more seeds, special education

Simple Daily Habits to Ignite Your Passion for Teaching

Summer Time = Time for Self-Care

For most teachers, even homeschoolers, there is a time of year when you take a break from teaching. Perhaps you teach summer school, and that break is the two weeks before summer school begins, and the two weeks before your school year starts anew. Perhaps you choose to reset all summer, leaving your classroom chores behind in June and not looking at them again until August. Perhaps, if you homeschool, you choose to take the whole Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday off, spending time on home and family for a couple of months.

Regardless of the time, we educators know that a “season of refreshing” is important for our bodies, our minds and our spirits. A time to recharge is especially for those who labor with students who have significant challenges, behaviorally, physically or emotionally. It’s hard to remain passionate, when we are just plain tired. We pour and pour all year long – summer means it’s time to refill that empty cup.

While we spend time on our physical and mental health needs over this summer, let’s take a moment to consider what routines we can establish that can serve to recharge us during the school year. After all, what we practice now can become a habit for the new school year. Wouldn’t it be nice to reignite our passion for teaching just a little, every day?

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Make time for the good in every day. {Image Credit: deeplifequotes via Creative Commons}

Daily Routines that Refresh and Renew

Below is a list of some well-known routines that can relieve stress, renew our energy levels, and bring us peace inside. I’m sure you can think of others. Pick two or three that you want to try and set a goal to practice each one every day, for the next 21 days (because scientists say that doing something 21 days in a row makes it become a habit). At the end of the 21 days, evaluate your progress. If you are successful with something, consider adding a new item from the list. If you weren’t successful, fret not: learning specialists note that it takes between 35 and 75 successful repetitions of a new idea or skill before the average person masters it. Keep going until you get it!

Start now while you have time to practice. Then, by the time the school year arrives this fall, you will have daily routines in place that will keep you passion afire all year long.

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Make time to do one thing that refreshes and renews your body, mind and spirit.
  • Get outside (#1). Scientists everywhere agree that getting outside is essential for your entire being. Find a time of day to spend at least 20 minutes outside. Maybe it’s a long walk with your dog (something you’ll both look forward to) or drinking your morning coffee on the patio instead of in the kitchen. I like to come home and spend time puttering in the yard. The important thing isn’t what the task is: it’s that you are out in the fresh air and sunshine, two things that are immediate mood-boosters.
  • Be artistic (#2). Art therapy has been an established practice for decades. It improves focus and patience, as well as leading to more introspection and reflection. Psychologists everywhere note the benefits of art as therapy, even if you are simply coloring a mandala. If drawing and painting isn’t your thing, play with play dough or clay. If that’s still not you, pick up that camera, or work at sewing or knitting. For me, cooking is an art form – and I love to take photographs of the finished product. Spend at least 20 minutes a day being artistic.
  • Practice gratitude (#3). It is so easy to focus on the negatives of a day. Having a gratitude routine helps bring us back to the positives of that same day. I use a journal that opens and closes each day with three things for which I’m grateful. Gratitude takes us out of ourselves for a moment, and helps us see the bigger picture of our lives. Gratitude is so powerful it can even transform a workplace. Start today by listing five things for which you are grateful. Continue for 20 more days.
  • Drink more water (#4). I confess: I am terrible about drinking enough water. And I sometimes get headaches as a result. It’s so easy to forget to drink enough, when you’re running around taking care of students. Doctors know that our bodies need adequate hydration in order to function properly. Dermatologists know that proper hydration makes our skin look younger. And experts also know that we can get our water from anything.. well… watery (including fruits, salads, and even that cup of morning coffee [despite the popular myth that coffee dehydrates you]). Make it a point to start your day with a glass of water before you do anything else.
  • Play loud music and dance (#5). Ok, I will tell the world: I dance in the kitchen while I cook. I am also a hell of a car dancer. Music and movement helps regulate your body systems, and also improves cognitive function. We know music and movement are important with small children, but it’s not just for preschoolers! So, today, start to dance like no one’s looking! See how much better you feel.
  • Turn off the screens (#6). Technology is a tool that makes so many aspects of our lives easier. However, in just a few short decades, we already see the downside of social media and other uses of technology. Set aside a regular time to turn off all your devices – maybe one day a week, one hour a day… whatever you choose. Maybe you’ll have a social media-free day, only. Maybe you’ll decide to read instead of watching TV. Pick one time and stick to it.
  • Shower or bathe in the evening (#7). I have a friend who used to work in a women’s shelter as a crisis worker. She is a kind, and warm, and caring woman – so easy to talk to. She said she made it through that job by showering when she got home, and visualizing all the negative emotions and energy she absorbed flowing off her body and down the drain. Showering in the evening also washes dust and pollen off your hair and body, and a long bubble bath can be relaxing – all of which make for a better night’s sleep. Time.com conducted a poll on the benefits of showering at night.
  • Meditate (#8). I often find I can’t fall asleep at night, because my head is full of all the things that happened throughout the day, things that I need to do tomorrow, or events that are still bouncing around in there after a life time. Meditation, the purposeful emptying of the mind, is an important tool to relax oneself, and to become more focused and self-aware. If you are a praying person, make sure that you stop talking to God, and leave empty time for Him to answer. Start with ten minutes a day. There are many online tools to teach meditation for beginners.
  • Do your favorite cardio activity for 20 minutes (#9). You don’t have to go to the gym. Walk. Ride your exercise bike. Jump rope. Dig holes in your garden. Throw a ball for your dog. Cardiovascular exercise improves your mind as well as your body. Although our days as teachers are busy, we don’t move as much as we should. My husband and I like to take an evening walk. It’s not fast, but we spend time talking about the day, looking at the scenery, and reconnecting. Do what you like, and do it every day for 21 days.
  • Go to bed early (#10). Most of us educators are chronically under-rested. I usually get up at 4:00 am each day, and leave for work at about 6:30 am. If I go to bed at 9:00 pm, it’s still not enough sleep for me. I need coffee and sometimes a nap when I get home. I know I’m not getting enough sleep, because, on the days I don’t have to work, I have well-developed, memorable dreams between 4:00 am and 6:00 am. That’s REM sleep that obviously doesn’t happen during the work week. In fact, doctors say that most people get less sleep than they think. Try to get to bed by 8:00 pm one night – let yourself read (not on your phone – see #6!) for ½ hour if you must – but turn your lights and TV out by 8:30 pm. See how you feel in the morning.
  • Take your vitamins (#11). I know the jury is still out on the role of vitamin supplements in health, although doctors have documented the benefits of vitamin supplements as people age. I know that I feel like I have more energy when I take a multi-vitamin each day. It’s likely that, in our rushed lives, we don’t eat like we should. Try starting a good vitamin regimen this summer, and see how it makes you feel.
  • Spend time with your pet (#12). We have always had a house full of pets. Each one of us has certain pets that are our sidekicks. As for me, two of our cats wait outside our bedroom door (I swear they hear my eyes flutter open), and run to my office with me, where “we” spend an hour or two writing before the day begins. They fight for my lap, and love to be hugged. The benefits of pets are well-known. Try making a time of day where you hold, pet or cuddle with a pet – even for a few minutes. Notice how the stress pours off you when you do.
  • Do something for someone else (#13). Twelve-step programs have a saying, “You can’t keep it unless you give it away.” The thing we want most comes to us when we give it to someone else, whether it’s love, or money, or peace, or a meal. A lifestyle routine of doing good for others  has been scientifically shown to increase our mental health as well as our level of happiness. Start by making a cup of coffee for your partner in the morning, or phoning a friend who comes to mind during the day. Do this every day. Make it a routine.
  • Create a private space (#14). Sarah Ban Breathnach wrote a book awhile back called Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy. In it, one of the first tasks she recommends is creating a small space that is just for you. Do you have a place for yourself in your home? I recently created a small study space in the parlor of my new home. After I clean up from dinner, and everyone has retreated upstairs for the evening, I spend a few moments reading in this space. I light a candle, grab a cat or two, and turn out all the lights but the reading lamp. In the winter, I can put some logs in the fireplace. Having a space of your own is comforting. If you want a comfy place outdoors, there are ideas for that, too. Create a nook to use when school starts up again. And, while you’re at it…
  • Make it comfy (#15). The Danish have a word, hygge (pronounced “hoo-ga”) which means, “comfy.” Think about what things make you feel comfortable, then practice including them more in your surroundings. We have a practice in my house of immediately changing into “comfy clothes” when we come home. Add a cup of tea and squishy socks, soft music and a candle, and I’m good to go. Read up on the hygge lifestyle to see what you can add to your home – and your classroom!
  • Use essential oils (#16). I’ve become an essential oils fan, ever since I bought an oil diffuser about a year ago. These powerful plant-based oils have a number of scientifically documented benefits, from pain relief to wound healing to relaxation and stress relief. Add a diffuser to the place where you get ready for the day, or to your night-time routine. See how it changes your mood.
  • Work with your hands (#17). There’s something about working with your hands that is an immediate stress reliever. Everyday things, like writing, or kneading dough, or pulling weeds, all have a way of improving your focus, emptying your mind and relieving tension. I find that washing dishes works like a charm, helping me relax (oh, that warm, soapy water) and melting stress from my neck and shoulders. Sometimes, I add a relaxing essential oil blend to my dishwater. But if you don’t believe me, believe these scientists in Florida who reported on dishwashing and stress relief!
  • Carve out some “me” time (#18). My colleagues have always thought me daft, getting up at 4:00 am every day. I tell everyone, even my family, that the time from 4:00 am until 6:00 am is ME time – it’s quiet, I’m most focused and alert and creative, and I get to greet the day with a sunrise every day. In this time, I pray, I read my Bible, I write, I cuddle my cats, I sip my coffee and plan my day… When I don’t have this time, I feel it all day. The importance of time alone, especially when you have a job where you do all day for others, cannot be overemphasized. Take this break to examine where you can fit alone time into your day.
  • Do what you’re good at (#19). In a world where you can be anything you want, be yourself. Make sure you allow time each day to do something you’re good at. I am a master scheduler. I can throw together a bunch of calendars or six course curricula and come up with a meeting schedule or pacing guide that fits everyone’s needs.  I like to find and share resources with others. What’s your niche? If you’re  a baker, or a chef, or a reader, or a writer, make sure that you leave time each day to pursue that which is your gift. Feeling competent improves self-concept and mood in children and adults. Sometimes, as teachers, we get to the end of the day and wonder what good came out of it. Having something we do each day that we’re good at, helps us stay balanced.
  • Celebrate achievements and note lessons learned (#20). At the end of each day, I write down three lessons learned – three things which might not have gone perfectly but gave me opportunities to do better next time. Considering these things as opportunities to learn, rather than failures, helps me grow. I also write down three wins for the day – three things which could be celebrated. Some days don’t feel like they should be celebrated, at all. By forcing myself to look for the good in each day, I am able to see my day in a more balanced way and maintain a growth mindset. Use that last block in your plan book to list these lessons learned and celebrations, or make it part of your staff meeting.
  • Make a “problems list” (#21). I once heard a story about a dad who gave his child’s nighttime “monster” a silly name, like “Booger Head.” By naming the child’s fear with a not-so-scary name, instead of denying its existence, Dad was able to make the monster seem “smaller” and less frightening. Similarly, by identifying obstacles to our peace, then jotting down one or two “right now” things we can do about it, we make the problems seem smaller and more manageable. This process, often called “name it to tame it,” is a process many psychologists use when working with anxious clients. Take time each day to list a few things that feel uncomfortable, and next to each, one thing you can do about it the next day.
  • Try a monthly challenge (#22). If you need a baby-steps method for starting daily habits of self-care, try Googling self-care challenges. Find one that seems to address your needs (whether it’s an exercise challenge, or an anti-anxiety challenge, or a de-cluttering challenge – choose one of the items, above). Stick to it, using that time you set aside for yourself previously (remember #18?).

Self-Care and You

As teachers, we give all day, and then give some more. Then we go home to our families. Making sure we protect time to replenish and refresh ourselves makes us better family members, better teachers, and better, more balanced people.

What habits have you developed to keep balanced? Let us know in the comments, below.


{ This blog is featured in Top 100 Special Education Blogs}

Posted in general education, homeschool, literacy, mind, special education

The Tao of Choosing Textbooks

Tao: the absolute principle underlying the universe, combining within itself the principles of yin and yang, opposite or contrary forces which are actually complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world.

{Chinese philosophy}

The Textbook Trap

When I first started teaching, I quickly fell into the trap of worrying more about transcripts, course titles and pacing guides than I did about the specific learning goals of my students.  It was the old “coverage” versus “mastery” conflict.

I served on textbook selection committees, where we dutifully compared several texts to the curriculum standards. Then we created materials for standards which weren’t covered well. We cross-referenced and unwrapped and created incredible learning materials, all in the name of ensuring proper coverage of all the state and national standards.

Our thinking was that our kids’ biggest obstacle to learning was that our current textbooks and curriculum materials didn’t adequately cover the current curriculum standards. These, of course, were the standards that were assessed on the current standardized tests.

Our working hypothesis? If we use this standards-based textbook, our kids will do better in school (as measured by the SBAC/CMT/SAT (you fill in the blank here…).

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Schools spend time and money matching textbooks to standards – but does this mean they are matched to the students’ needs? {Image credit: Kim M. Bennett, 2019}

Choosing Textbooks for Students with Disabilities

As I mentally look out into the sea of faces that have graced my classrooms over the past three years, I find that the best-written, most-aligned secondary textbooks in the world would not have addressed the major learning obstacles of the students in front of me:

  • The 11th grader who reads like a first grader, because he can’t hear the single sounds in a word;
  • The gifted 10th grader whose anxiety is so great that he often can’t leave his house to get on the bus;
  • The 8th grader whose major way of addressing stress is to sleep in the hallway;
  • The senior who declares “I don’t f—with division, miss;”
  • The 7th grader who missed most of 5th and 6th grade instruction, due to sitting in a chair in the hall or creating a ruckus somewhere on school grounds;
  • The 10th grader who reveals to you that he always was in bilingual classes when he was younger, and doesn’t know why he exited.

Now, please don’t hear me say that the quality of the textbook doesn’t matter for my students – it matters even MORE for kids who have a lot of ground to cover in a short time. It’s just not the major reason why they are struggling in school.

In my school, my principal uses three measuring sticks to evaluate the success of a classroom program:

  1. Are the kids safe?
  2. Are the kids in the classroom?
  3. Are the kids learning?

Frankly, prior to arriving in our behavioral health program, none of these things was true. When I choose what I do in class, I have to balance what my state and district say the kids need to understand, know and do with what they need, in order to engage as learners, at all.

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When selecting textbooks, think carefully of the learning needs of your student, first. {Image credit: Kim M. Bennett, 2017}

What I Need From a Textbook

As I grew as a teacher, I began to shift my focus back toward the needs of my students. I had to ask myself critical questions when choosing textbooks and other instructional materials:

  • What is the primary goal of my instruction?
  • What is the student’s main obstacle to reaching that goal, right now?
  • How will THIS resource help them overcome that obstacle?
  • Is there something that would do the job better than this resource?

So often we use a particular resource because it is the one that we have available, or it’s the one that is traditionally used for that grade or by your department, or it’s the one that we have already mastered, as the instructor. Convenience and adult needs supersede the instructional needs of the students. When I started asking myself these questions, I found that I could not draw a good line of fit between the answers and the textbook I chose. Not good.

At the start of this past school year, out of my ten students, I had ZERO who chose to read (“Books? I don’t read books…”). When an activity was textbook-based, they would try to answer the questions without consulting the textbook. The group of students ranged in grade from 7th to 12th grade, with reading levels from 1st to 5th grade level. By the end of the year, several students would read for fun, all had independent reading selections for assigned time, and all would read along with the shared reading. And they were able to regularly use textbooks to answer simple questions. What changed?

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Engaging students with a textbook, at all, is often the first obstacle to a student’s literacy learning. {Image Credit: Kim M. Bennett, 2014}

When Kids Choose Their Own Textbooks

Over the past three years, I have let students help me choose textbooks and literary pieces for the class. Why? What about the standards alignment? What about my pacing guide, you ask? Simply put: they won’t pick up the book.  It doesn’t matter how good it is – if it stays on the shelf, I’m sunk.

Recently, my assistant was serving snack, which we keep in a locked closet in the classroom, which also doubles as the math book storage for our school. One of my students pulled a textbook off the shelf, and handed it to me, without any comment. I asked him about it, and he flicked the cover with his finger and threw his hands up like, “Can’t you see?” {he has autism, so communication sometimes means detective work…}. I asked him if he’d like to use that book, and he said yes, but when I asked him why, he said, “Cuz!” {read, “Duh … can’t you see?”}.

Guess what math book I’m using next year.

Over the past three years, I’ve grown to trust my students’ instincts on book selection, because getting them to even take the book is the first obstacle to their learning. Their {real!} reasons for selecting the book said a lot about obstacles to their learning:

  • “The cover looks dope.” {read: it looks like it’s about kids like ME}
  • “I think I can read most of these words.” {read: reading is hard for me}
  • “I think I know how to do some of the stuff already.” {read: I don’t feel confident in my skills}
  • “I saw a picture of a guy playing football, and I like sports.” {read: I think it might be interesting}
  • “They just tell me what I need to do.” {read: the wording is straightforward, so I won’t get lost}
  • “I can tell what to read.” {read: the structure is clear, so I can see what’s most important}
  • “There’s an activity that would be fun on page 26.” {read: I need hands-on learning}
  • “I saw a nutritional label on page 15, and that’s important for kids.” {read: there is a life purpose for the content}
  • “It doesn’t look like a lot of work.” {read: life is overwhelming – I need a place that isn’t}

Interestingly, some newer textbooks include many sidebar notes, highlighted sections, boxed mini-stories, etc. Most of my students (and my own youngest son!) find these graphic “aids” to be just the opposite! For many students with attention problems, reading difficulties or other disabilities, the less cluttered a page is, the easier it is to navigate. If I can’t choose another book, I instruct students to mask out the part of the page we’re not reading. Later, I explicitly teach how to use the sidebars (or not).

Valuing student choices values the student .

National Council of Teachers of English, 2016

Action Research: Kids Choosing Their Own Learning Materials

Over the past three years, I have had good success engaging students with texts, when I let them help me choose the book to use for class. Here are some examples of instructional materials that my students chose and used successfully.

Textbooks

For students who are below-grade-level readers, students with attention difficulties who need uncluttered print resources, and students whose mental health issues make it hard for them to focus in class, I’ve found using the Pacemaker books from Globe Fearon to be a game-changer.

I have personally used the Pacemaker United States History and Pacemaker United States Geography for multiple years. The content is high school level, but the readability is 3rd to 4th grade level. The teacher’s resources include a Reader’s Guide, note-taking sheets for each section of each chapter. These Reader’s Guides start out with simple fill-in notes, and become more sophisticated as the student progresses through the book, functioning as an accelerated reading support system.  Each chapter has a quiz which is written on the same level as the book, but also has a GED Test Prep quiz. I copy the two quizzes back to back, and encourage my kids to use the strategies they learned with the harder text – something that all students need to practice.

I will say that the pages are very much unadorned. You won’t find colorful illustrations, and the pages themselves are not slick and pretty. I haven’t noticed my students complaining about that.

Steck-Vaughn also publishes textbooks with the struggling reader in mind. The high school level content is presented in text that is below grade level, and the chapters are short and manageable for most learners. The text is controlled so it supports below-grade-level readers while retaining critical content vocabulary.  The pages, themselves, are a bit more “fancy” than the Pacemaker textbooks. Again, my kids haven’t commented on this.

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Instructional materials include items that support reading comprehension and vocabulary development. Click here to purchase on Amazon.
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Pacemaker books present high school topics in a more readable, accessible format. Click here to purchase on Amazon.

Novels

My kids gravitate toward novels that feature teens that are imperfect, trying to overcome giant obstacles in their lives. In short, my students want to read about kids like themselves. Here is a short list of some recent favorites. All were pulled off the shelf by a student (“Miss, can we read this book next?”):

Bronx Masquerade (Nikki Grimes, 2002)  [GE 3.8] –  a novel presented as a collection of personal narratives and poetry by a group of Harlem teens in a high school English class. My kids didn’t want to put the book down this year. They were even inspired to write their own poetry, as a result. There isn’t a film version, but the movie Freedom Writers (2007) is a perfect follow-up to this book.

Day of Tears (Julius Lester, 2007) [GE 5] – A unique novel, written like a screen play, about a group of slaves who lived on the same plantation. The novel follows their lives through generations of slave owners and into the days of emancipation. The novel is based on real historical events surrounding real people, on a real plantation. This book works better with students who can infer, as the reader has to fill in some events mentally as you go through the novel.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Jonathan Safron Foer, 2005) [GE 6.5] – a novel  about a boy who discovers a mysterious key left by his father, who died in the World Trade Center  on September 11, 2001. I actually got this book after one of my students recommended it to me as a personal read. Most of my kids were born in the aftermath immediately after this event, so they have many questions about 9/11. And, yes, there is a film adaptation!.

Bullyville (Francine Prose, 2008) [GE 6.8] – This novel, a story about a boy who gets a scholarship to attend a prestigious private school after his father dies in the World Trade Center, hit home with many of my students, who had either been bullies or had been bullied. The mild profanity and teen violence is real and uncensored. We tied our daily writing prompts to this book.

The Big Empty (J. B. Stephens, 2004) [GE 7] – A dystopian novel about a group of teens navigating a post-apocalyptic world that has been wiped out by a virus. The US government has relocated citizenry to the coasts, leaving the middle states “empty.” Or, so they say. A group of my students selected this for their literature circle one year, and I’ve been recommending it to kids since then. (NOTE: there is a film with the same name that is NOT the same story, and not kid-friendly – be careful).

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (John Boyne, 2007) [GE 7.4] – as one of my students exclaimed, “This happened to kids like us! That’s the crazy thing…” This is an emotionally hard and sad read about two boys, one Jewish boy who was a prisoner in a death camp, and the son of one of his captors, during World War II. We watched the film versionimmediately after, and the kids sat in total silence while the closing credits rolled. After the credits were over, no one could talk. (NOTE: This book pairs well with Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig (May 18 1995) [GE 6.5], a true story about a Jewish family relocated to a labor camp in Siberia during the same time period).

How Do You Choose Learning Materials?

Here are some resources I find handy when matching instructional materials to my students’ needs.

~ Fountas & Pinnell Guided Reading Levels and Grade Level Equivalents

~ Lexile Levels and Grade Level Equivalents

~ Scholastic Book Wizard (for leveling books)

How have you chosen materials to use with your students? Share in the comments, below.

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{ This blog is featured in Top 100 Special Education Blogs}

Posted in general education, homeschool, more seeds, reflection, special education

The Ritual of Ending the School Year

The End of the School Year is Here!

Well, it’s finally here – that long-awaited, simultaneously longed-for and dreaded, end of the school year.

If you’re like many students and educators, you already know the exact number of “go-to-bed-and-get-ups” until school’s out for the summer. I can even hear Alice Cooper singing right about now.

When it’s the end of the year, I always feel a bunch of things, all at the same time. I’m glad for the end of that downward spiral of behavior that seems to happen when the days get longer and the nights get warmer. I’m relieved that there will soon be no more Friday notes and PPT reports to prepare, no more testing, no more fights with the copier at the 11th hour, at least for a couple of months. I’m anxious for the well-being of my students, especially the ones who don’t do change very well. The end of the year also brings that renewed excitement as I begin to think about what was, what could have been, and what I hope for in the coming year.

For me, there’s a ritual feeling to the end of the school year. How about for you?

Time to (Re)Move Stuff

In the past year, I’ve moved a lot of things into a lot of places: my old school closed and I helped move its contents to another building; I moved my teaching materials into an empty room in my new school; I moved from the home we’ve lived in for the past fourteen years and into a house in another city. These moves taught me that people (errr… that would be me) keep too much stuff! 

One of my end of the year tasks now is throwing away stuff that I don’t need. If you need to clear the clutter, too, here three places to start:

  1. “File copies” of handouts ~ Don’t keep something if you can find it somewhere else. If you have the workbook, you can make more copies – IF you need them.
  2. Dog-eared novels ~ Make a springtime ritual out of giving away “well-loved” books to your students at the end of the year.
  3. Old textbooks ~ Just because you have a class set of textbooks doesn’t mean you should keep them. Pitch them or find a buy-back or donation program.
end of the year organization http://allkidscanlearn.school.blog
The end of the year is a perfect time to get rid of what you don’t want, and organize what you want to keep. Image credit (c) 2015. Kim M. Bennett

Once I clear the clutter, it’s time to organize what I have left. The company I work for uses Toyota’s 5S process, where items are organized and the space they occupy is labeled. I used the peel-and-stick labels that you use to make tabs in notebooks. Labeling this way looks attractive, helps students be more independent, and encourages me to put things back where they belong (instead of on the windowsill behind my desk) at the end of the school day.

I also take time at the end of the year to move my base of operation back home. Things that I need to plan for the fall, summer school materials, and personal items that moved to school with me in August start to go home with me, a little each day, through the month of June.

Organizing My Thoughts

I find that April and May are my most creative planning months. I’m still in the thick of teaching, and writing new goals and objectives for my students. What they need is fresh in my mind, and I have ideas for how to meet their needs. If I wait until August, I have to remind myself what happened the year before.  The end of the year is the best time for me to start planning for next year!

I like to reflect on the year – what worked, what didn’t work… what I should begin doing, continue doing or stop doing. Sometimes I write these ideas down – I need to get better at that.

At the end of the year, I start to identify resources I want to use next year, and organize them using the 5S process. Image credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2018

While this is all fresh in my mind, I begin some long-range planning.

  • First, I choose the textbook(s) that I will use;
  • Next, I pace the textbook out for the school year;
  • Then, I determine the pages that I need to cover each day to complete the text.

Granted, things come up. But, if I do this long-range planning at the end of the year, it makes it easier for me to do my weekly and daily planning when I return in the fall.

I work in a self-contained special education room, in an alternative school setting, under the oversight of a large hospital system. We have a lot of tasks to do. I’m sure you do, too. My colleagues and I are taking some time at the end of the year to create a month-by-month schedule of tasks so that we can schedule classroom, school and corporate activities into our planning in the fall.

Restoring Balance

Teaching is hard work, especially if you are working with students with significant challenges and learning needs. It is easy to put yourself on a back burner for the sake of the students. At the end of the year, I need to actively put myself back into the equation, and restore balance in my life.

I love to garden, and usually start to work outside a little each day as soon as the weather permits. The flow of this spring activity helps me to slowly shift my focus from school life to family, home and self.

It also helps me to refill my empty cup.  We all need seasons of refreshing. For me, I’m currently finding joy and peace in my home and kitchen:

  • I revived my Amish friendship bread starter and am baking bread once or twice a week;
  • I like to brew my own kombucha – my most recent batch was a tasty dandelion and fennel brew;
  • I have a trip to the garden center planned, to pick out vegetables for the kitchen garden that I am planning for our new home.
end of the year kombucha http://allkidscanlearn.school.blog
At the end of the school year, it’s time to revive hobbies that bring us joy. Image credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2019

I recently reconnected with the Women’s Ministry at my church. One of our tasks for the month was to keep a gratitude journal. Writing down what I am grateful for in the morning, then again in the evening, reminds me that there I am blessed in so many ways, even on the most frustrating of days. Even at the end of the school year when the kids slowly come unraveled.

Some Final Thoughts…

Ending things is hard. I find it easier at the end of the year if I leave on the last day with a short bucket list of things I want to do over the summer. Here are a few from mine:

  1. Build a book room at school with my colleagues.
  2. Start a kitchen garden in my front yard.
  3. Finish cleaning out my old house.
  4. Catch up on medical appointments.
  5. Read and write daily.

How Do You End the School Year?

What are your “end of the year” rituals? Share with us in the comments, below.