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Thursday, June 1, 2017

Explaining the Unexplainable to Kids

How do we approach a topic that exposes the evil within mankind?

September 11, 2001, teachers across the nation had to deal with the worst terrorist attack on American soil. District and campus administrators had the unconscionable responsibility of communicating to teachers the events as they unfolded during that horrific day.

There were no cell phones or desk top computers in classrooms, so word was spread mouth to mouth all the while shielding our students from information that was difficult for adults to digest.

I remember being in a classroom and trying to wrap my head around an act so deplorable. I found myself second guessing what our campus administrator was telling us. After hearing the news of an airplane hitting the Pentagon, I secretly filed it away in what would now be considered "Fake News."

911 is years behind us, but every teacher, every administrator, every parent remembers the helplessness and disbelief that something so evil could happen in the U.S.A,. It was unfathomable. Years after the fact, I still feel a sickness in the pit of my stomach when I remember that fateful day. One of my favorite country artists, Alan Jackson, penned the song Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning." The song captured the immense grief and heartache we felt.

May 22, 2017, childrens' innocence was stripped away because of the evil acts of terrorism that took place at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England. Unlike the events of 911, smart phones have changed the culture on how we relay information. Social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat have opened the floodgates to a world of information that can be accessed by any child with access to a smart phone.

I can promise you our children are far more worldly than we want to imagine. Children are Internet savvy. It would be naive to believe that we have control over what our children see. Like many of you, I believe that parents have the responsibility of talking with their children about this event, however, there are instances when the lines between parent and teacher become cloudy.

If a student wants to talk about this tragedy, how do we go about explaining the unexplainable?

1) Look for the helpers.

Mr. Rogers explains how when he was a little boy, when there was a catastrophe on the air, his mother would say, "always look for the helpers." Direct children's attention to the Good Samaritans, the hospital workers, ambulance drivers, organizations such as the Red Cross, and others who are giving support and healing to families effected by this tragedy.

2) Flood social media with positive messages.

Author Peter Reynolds @peterhreynolds tweeted out, "We can make more light-together" #manchester #UK  If you have an individual or school Twitter account, retweet positive messages that are uplifting. If you are a teacher or administrator, you could post social media posts.  J.K Rowing @jk_rowling is an outstanding role model for shifting the focus from terror to positivity.

3) Be honest.
As much as we want to reassure our students that nothing bad will ever happen to them, that simply isn't true. There is a way to share honestly, without sensationalizing stories that instill fear in all of us. Seek out professionals in your district to get support on how to communicate in ways that are appropriate depending on the age and maturity of the child. 

In the words of children's author, Peter Reynolds, "There is more good than bad in the world. More light than darkness..." Pass the word along.

Confession Reflection
  • Why is it important for district leaders to consider district wide professional development to help educators respond to events such as 911 and May 22nd terrorist act? How would professional development benefit teachers? i.e. create a common language, learn age-appropriate responses, digital footprint awareness
  • What are ways educators can acknowledge acts of terrorism in terms that would not sensationalize or invoke fear in our students? 
  • How can teachers and administrators partner with parents and community outreach programs during times of crisis?

Sunday, May 14, 2017

How to Keep Your Sanity and Teach Kids Simultaneously

It's the final weeks until schools all across the United States and Canada are about to be let out for summer vacation.

Tensions rise. Claws come out. Betrayals happen. Fear of contracts not being renewed can spark nasty rumors. It's easy to get caught up and forget who we are as educators and why we do what we do.

Here are 5 survival tips from the movie Top Gun to help educators make it to the last day of school in one piece!

1. Stay focused!

One of the easiest things to do is to be swept away by needless distractions.
Rumors and gossip can spread like a wildfire sparking fear in your staff and/or the teachers you work with everyday.

Anytime a conversation starts with, "Have you heard....?" or "Did you hear about....?" That's a sign to disengage in the conversation. Keep your focus on our most valuable commodity: our learners! Don't let distractions shortchange our kids.

2. Stay connected!

Don't be fooled into thinking that you can coast through the end of the year alone. This is especially difficult for educators or administrators who have felt betrayed or have been let down by a team member. This isn't to say you have to go into relationships with blind trust. It's okay to have your guard up, but it is foolish to think you can finish strong if you choose not to work collaboratively with your professional learning community (PLC) and administration.

3. Gear check!

Ask: Do I have what I need to finish out the year? Are my discipline procedures in place? Do I have the supplies I need? Don't wait until next year. Go ahead and put in a help ticket to technology department if a computer decides to have a mind of its own.

 Keep fresh supplies in your room. Learners can sense when their teacher has checked out for summer vacation and this may directly effect their behavior (in a negative way)! Also, don't forget to BREATHE normally and smile. This will give the illusion that you are calm and self-assured even if you're a nervous wreck!

4. Honor those in authority over you!

This can be a tough one especially if you feel like an administrator is out to get you. In reality, the opposite is true! Our administration is there to support and help their staff be successful. Think about it: their success as a Superintendent, Curriculum Director, Principal, or Assistant Principal is dependent on the performance of the staff they oversee.

 It's easy to feel singled out, especially if your end-of -year evaluation doesn't portray you as the shiny penny you believe you are. Keep your head up. Show respect. It's okay to self-advocate but do so respectfully!

5. Be professional...always!

I recently read a statement: You can never be too overdressed or over-prepared. I'm not sure how applicable that is...but there is a hidden gem in this wise saying. How we dress, our tone of voice, the way we interact with co-workers, parents, and learners should stay professional.

Let's be honest. Our learners are going to be going bonkers the closer to the last day school. Award ceremonies, field trips, year book signing parties, are all going to add to the adrenaline rush. Keep your composure and keep doing what's best for kids!

Confession Reflection:
  • What are ways educators can mentally prepare for the weeks prior to summer vacation?
  • Why is it important to maintain positive interactions with staff, parents, and learners?
  • How can educators veer away from negative conversations without hurting feelings or isolating themselves? Why is it important to avoid fueling hurtful rumors?

Sunday, April 16, 2017


It's that time of year when a collective sigh can be heard from teachers and administrators in schools across America. The one-size-fits-all, state-mandated accountability test is over. Now what?

Before introducing a new unit, I propose having an in-school playtime in your classroom.  I'm not talking about a whole class free-for-all that will result in your serious consideration of taking early retirement; but rather play that is manageable.

It is planned. It is focussed. It is productive.

Inviting play into the classroom is as easy as supplying a few board games purchased at a Goodwill, playdough, and legos. If you have access to Ipads and you are supported by your principal, play can turn into digital creations. (I'll share an example later).

Play can be cost efficient. Recipes for playdough can be found on Pinterest or a simple google search for teachers on a't we all?

Why play?  Erik Jenson, author of Teaching with the Brain in Mind, contends play builds memory and improves parts of the brain used for problem-solving. There are countless studies by neuroscientists to support how positive emotions associated with play improve mood.

Think about the student in your classroom who is not able to remember how to get from point A to point B after you have gone over, and over, and over the instructions. Think about the student who looks sad and may even be acting out in anger.

I'm not saying throwing an activity together and calling it "play" will support students.  Play needs to be something that you (the teacher) will buy into or your stress will spill over into other parts of your life. You will feel like kicking the dog when you get home. If you're like me, there needs to be structure. Give students clear expectations. I went as far as to say to my middle schoolers how play improved learning. Make play work for you and your classroom. 

Here are some ways play supports learning:

1) Play fuels the brain.

After buying one too many games with missing pieces at garage sales, I decided to write a grant for board games. Before the ink was dry, a parent came to me and asked, "What if I could get games donated to your classroom?" In no less than a week, my campus's parent-teacher organization (PTO) collected and donated more games than I could have imagined (or afforded).

With the influx of games, I upped play days to the first 15 minutes of class two times a week. I noticed the students who routinely played board games participated more in classroom discussions. My first-period sleepy heads were visibly more awake and had fewer tardies.

2) Play builds self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy is a fancy term meaning the belief in oneself to complete tasks or reach goals. One year I had a student beg me to allow him to bring his new Lego collection to school on Fridays. (He had a 'special edition'). After pricing Legos on my own, I agreed.

During playtime, you would have thought my Lego builders were given a secret agent assignment because they seemed secretive about their creation.

One day my Lego builders called me over, "Mrs. Dollar, do you want to watch our Lego movie?"

"Your Lego movie?" I repeated. I had no idea.

After watching their movie, I was awe-struck. These were sixth graders with no previous experience (that I was aware of) in moving making of any kind.

When I asked how they learned to make the video, one of the students hunched his shoulders and answered, "I googled it!"

I also learned that my Lego builders had been learning about Recycling in their Science class.

3) Play improves mood.

Ask any teacher if learning should be fun, and you'll get a variety answers. I tend to reside in the "learning is fun" camp. In my opinion, there are far too many stresses our students deal with outside of the school walls. If play can bring some reprieve from life's disappointments like parents getting a divorce, or worries over money for groceries, then it is worth doing. 

I believe it is during play when students are able to take a moment and leave their stress at the classroom door. 

Note: I invited play into my middle school literacy classroom after attending a district training on teaching students in poverty with Eric Jensen. My assistant principal (and supervisor) asked me to try some of the strategies presented in the training as part of our campus initiative. One strategy involved using games to improve memory. The first year, I had phenomenal results in improved behavior and even test scores, that I continued using games. I added "play" because I had some students who didn't want to participate in an activity that involved competition. When play became a routine part of my classroom, I supported activities with state learning standards and added reading and writing extension activities. If you'd like to try implementing play on a routine basis, you'll need the support from your administration. 

Confession Reflection: 
  • How might play support a positive classroom learning environment?
  • What are some characteristics of play that would equip students with skills to be successful in the real world? i.e. taking turns, social language, collaboration
  • Why is it important for teachers to make play accessible to ALL students? What are the dangers of making play only accessible to 'well-behaved' students?

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Lost in Translation: When Lesson Plans Go Wrong

As with most adventures in life, things don't always go as planned. It was 2007, light years away from Angry Birds, Iphones, and instagram. Class projects relied on the good ol' #2 pencil, glue stick, colored pencils, crayons, scissors, and a trusty ruler.

I was a week away from spending a romantic springbreak get-a-way with my husband touring the city of love and lights; Paris, France. But as with all teachers, it is in our DNA to carry our students in our hearts, even on vacation.

I was walking the aisles of Hobby Lobby when a miniature passport with the Eiffel Tower on the cover caught my eye. Wa-La! The Flat Stanley project was scheduled to launch. It would be the crème de la crème of literacy ventures. I would take a class-made Flat Stanley to Paris, snap photos, and return ready to translate the photos into a journal starring our very own Flat Stanley.

Before internet gizmos and gadgets, hashtags, and Avatars, Flat Stanley was a simple paper cut-out, shaped like a boy with reddish-brown hair, fair skin, and rosy cheeks. He was an ordinary boy until a bulletin board fell on him during the night flattening him. The 1964 book series, by Jeff Brown, has Stanley capturing burglars and retrieving keys from storm drains; feats of heroism attainable because of his flatness.

As fate would have it, the day my literacy class was scheduled to discuss our global project, I bit down on a cherry jolly rancher and cracked my back molar. I went to the dentist and was told I needed a root canal. I scrambled sub plans and wrote detailed notes on Flat Stanley literacy circles, mapping out his adventures to famous landmarks, and of course, using paper templates of Flat Stanley.

When I returned on Thursday, teachers would vote anonymously on which Stanley would go. It was a lot to ask from a substitute, but visions of the project trumped any common sense.

Dreams of French pastries and desserts kept me strong through the ordeal, and I was confident the Flat Stanley project would prevail. I would not...could not...let a jolly rancher take me and our class project down.

The swelling was worse than expected and  a dry socket would keep me out until Friday...the last day before spring break. I emailed my substitute who assured me the students were "highly engaged" and the students' characters were "coming along nicely."

I returned to school to find a plethora of paper creations lining the walls, only none of them looked like Flat Stanley.  I opened my book bag and a lump formed in my throat.

The crispy white sheets of Flat Stanley templates, were tucked neatly inside my school tote bag, along with my project plans. 

I looked around the room. There was a Harry Potter look-alike (scar and all), a transformer, a Justin Bieber, and even a Pegasus. I wanted to cry. What have they done? I cursed the jolly rancher. In the absence of templates and lesson plans, the students didn't know that they were creating a Flat Stanley replica that would actually go to France.

My substitute wasn't to blame either. I had forgotten to take the templates out and half of the plans were paper clipped to the copies. She only knew to read books and have students create a character using their imagination. It was the best I could've expected, really, given the circumstances.

I confess that I blamed the jolly rancher for years for the project gone bust. But there was a bright spot in the Flat Stanley Fiasco, as I called it for years. His character was unmistakable. With the exception of Flat Stanley's hair and white complexion, it was Kenny to a tee.

He had also designed a passport with a hand-drawn Eagle on the cover with black marker.

I pulled him aside, "You did a wonderful job drawing your character. What is his name?" (I excepted for him to say his name).

"Mrs. Dollar! He already has a name...Flat Stanley!"

After class, I quietly asked Kenny if he'd like for me to take his Flat Stanley and he answered, "Duh! That's why I made a passport!"

I confess that I wanted to create an authentic Flat Stanley, the one Mr. Brown would be proud of (or so I thought), but my teacher inner voice screamed no! I guess you could say it's one of the moments when, as a teacher, I had to let go of preconceived notions, my ideal lesson, the crème de la crème project.. and go with the heart.

To learn more about the Flat Stanley Literacy project:

Confession Reflection:
  • Has there ever been a project/lesson that didn't go the way you planned? What did you learn from the experience?
  • Can you think of a teacher who affirmed you in some way? Did the experience shape how you relate to your students?
  • How can administrators nurture a climate that affirms risk-taking and celebrates "jolly rancher" moments?
I originally published this blog in 2013, but decided to republish this year. This is one of my all-time favorite blogs. I also found more pictures to post. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Literacy in the New Millennium: Finding a Balance Between Audio and DigitalTexts

I confess change can be difficult. I recall with deep sorrow the day my overhead projector was rolled out of my room and replaced by a document camera.

In my opinion, my projector was a perfectly good piece of equipment! In fact, it took me almost a year to concede that the projector wasn't returning. I stayed in denial until 2015 when I tossed out my box of faithful transparencies.

As a middle school literacy coach, I felt like I had committed an unpardonable sin when I discovered the guilty pleasure of reading a book using my new Kindle reader. My first digital book was David and Goliath by Malcomb Gladwell. I enjoyed the nuance of changing pages with the swipe of my finger, highlighting features for unknown words, and the luxury of having a virtual bookshelf that could go anyplace with me.

During the school year 2011-2012, our campus introduced an audio library to staff and students. Our librarian worked with the students in my reading support class and showed them how to check in and check out Young Adult (YA) audio books. I saw firsthand how struggling readers, who would have never been able to read a YA novel on their own, listen to the same books as their peers. When available, my students would check out the physical book from the library and follow along with the audio. I saw my student's confidence as readers blossom.

My first audio book was Divergent by Veronica Roth. I spent part of my summer vacation listening to the  Divergent series while running errands or cleaning the house. There was something comforting about someone reading a book to me. Surprisingly, I didn't feel like I had missed out by not reading the text digitally or from a physical novel.

In spite of my experience with digital and audio texts, I always returned to the books I could hold in my hand. I found comfort in the familiarity of "dog earring" pages from a dime store paperback novel. I like the smell of paper and the sound of pages turning. I'm quite certain my first library card is boxed up in our attic most likely with my first edition of the Nancy Drew books.

Last fall, I co-designed an experimental research project to find if people (in general)  comprehended more after either listening to a text read by the author or by reading the digital text. Out of 117 volunteers (some of you may have participated), the results showed participants remembered more from an audio version of a text.

The graph shows the trend of correct questions answered. The orange line shows the correct answers by participants who listened to the author read the text. The blue line shows the correct answers by participants who read the text.

Would the results be differently had the passage been longer than 500 words?

Would the results have been different if the text had required different comprehension demands such as remembering a sequence of steps like in a recipe?

You can learn more about the study here:

As audio books and digital texts are being marketed by mega educational book companies, our students have options. Students who are reading "below grade level" have the opportunity to access the same literature as their "on level" peers by listening to the audio version of a book. Digital books often have features to allow English Language Learners to have unfamiliar words defined by touching and highlighting the word.

And yet, our students continue to be assigned paper based books to read in their courses.

One thing we should all agree on is that reading only happens when there is comprehension. Reading words without making meaning is nothing more than what is concerned "barking at print." I can "sound out" words in Spanish and sound like I am reading with some degree of fluency. However, I would have NO idea what the words meant without knowing the language!

Whether or not we agree on the type of text (audio, digital, paper-based), the goal is ALWAYS making meaning. In the classroom, ensuring that our students engage in DEEP READING is also critical. (At least that is my strong opinion).

What is deep reading?

According to Standford Center for Teaching and Learning, deep reading is a "deep approach to reading where the reader uses higher-order cognitive skills such as the ability to analyze, synthesize, solve problems, and thinks metacognitively in order to negotiate meanings with the author and to construct new meaning from the text. 

Lately, I have been wondering if the same high level of engagement could happen auditorily or by "deep listening". If so, what would this engagement look like? How would comprehension be measured?

As the millennium nears the twenty-year mark, changes in technology will continue to shape and define the literacy landscape. There will be more and more ways for students to engage with books whether it is auditorily, digitally, or perhaps with virtual reality.

The key will be finding a balance.

Confession Reflection

  • What are the benefits of giving students choices on how they engage with literacy? How would this empower students?
  • How might digital books support language acquisition for English Language Learners?
  • Why is it important to expose our students to literacies other than paper-based? How would engagement with these types of literacies support college and career readiness goals?
  • How can curriculum directors and literacy teachers support a balanced literacy program?

Sunday, January 1, 2017

5 Post-Holiday Strategies to Thwart the Infamous Triple Dog Dare!

Whether it's on the playground, in the locker room, or discreetly right under your nose, bullying happens every moment of everyday. Here are 5 strategies to stop bullies in their tracks!

1) Know the players.

Bullies are sneaky to say the least! In fact, one of your beloved darlings who makes straight A's and gave you a box of dark chocolates for Christmas, may very well be picking on one of your not-so-beloved students. One of the best ways to spot a bully is to catch them off guard.

The cafeteria lunch line, locker room, and playgrounds are breeding grounds for bullies. Pay attention to who cuts in line (bully)? Who typically sits alone pretending to read (victim)? Who is picked last when choosing "teams?" Instigators are highly manipulative and sneaky!

2) Get the whole story.

Before jumping to conclusions, stop and meet with involved parties separately. This may need to happen in an administrator's office depending on the severity. Nonetheless, before picking up the phone to call home, listen to all parties involved before writing the student up.

Warning: document, document, document! I once had a mentor teacher of mine tell me, "If it isn't written down, it never happened." Having the student write down in his/her own words will protect yourself and your campus administration from future headaches.

3) Don't be an enabler.

Just because you needed a smaller student to play the sheep in your Christmas pageant doesn't mean you should have chosen the smallest student. Children who are typically bullied are targets for a reason. Maybe they haven't hit a growth spurt and are small for their age. They may be super-intelligent and would rather talk about computer coding or fossils over computer games.

Why make the bully's job any easier?!

4) Be approachable.

How you see yourself and how your student sees you are entirely different. You may appear 15 feet tall to a young child who is in first grade.

As goofy as it may sound, practice your facial expressions in the mirror. Find a way to diminish scowls and creased foreheads in exchange for a less scary look. It is one thing to show disapproval, it is another thing to scar a small child for life!

Perspective is everything!

5) Teach students to self-advocate.

There's a fine line between tattle-telling and self-advocating. Students who learn to stick up for themselves and express their needs are less likely to fall victim to bullies. When a student self-advocates they are empowering themselves.

Whining and crying are weak ways to express needs and may look like tattle-telling. Our job as teachers is to teach children the difference. (We can't assume that children will learn this at home). Comfort and console, but then role play to model how to self-advocate.

Taking a proactive and preventative approach  may not rid the world from bullies, but it can certainly help to stop them in their tracks! Be aware. Be proactive. Believe students when they tell you that someone is picking on them. I triple dog dare you!

Confession Reflection
  • What is the difference between a student tattle-telling and student self-advocating?
  • How can administrators support teachers who have reoccurring bullying episodes in their classrooms?
  • Why is it important to have continued age-appropriate professional development on bully prevention? What resources would support this initiative on your campus?
  • What kinds of proactive measures can be taken to prevent cyberbullying?