Friday, November 6, 2015

Parent/Teacher Conferences

Conferences are one of my favorite nights of the year!  They reaffirm the beliefs that I already have: our teachers are great!  As parents are leaving the building, many would stop by my office, to give accolades to our teachers and praise the learning experiences their children are having throughout the year.  This is terrific informal data which supports the positive relationships and learning environment that we have created.  What a great feeling for our teachers and families! 

Fall conferences might be the 1st time teachers are meeting parents, other than the friendly, "hello" during drop off/pick up, and the occasional family night.  Conferences are a time when teachers get 10-20 minutes (depending on district) to showcase academic/social/emotional learning, goals and experiences that students are demonstrating throughout the school year.  Sometimes, parents don’t know what to expect… and neither do teachers!  Some simple things for teachers and parents to consider as conferences approach.  

Research tells us that there are 5 things parents want for their children:

1.      Success
2.      Safety
3.      Love
4.      Happiness
5.      Wisdom

Research tells us that there are 5 things teachers want from parents: 

1.       Establish child’s behavior
2.       Initiate warm conversation
3.       Get involved, monitor homework/school work/notes sent home/etc.
4.       Respond to teacher communication
5.       Good health

I am positive you could add a few more "wants" to each list.  The goal of a conference: make sure both parent and teacher “wants” are met for the benefit of our children.  When parents and teachers are able to collaborate and meet each other’s “wants,” then conferences are usually a great success, where student goals are established for the betterment of learning.  Unfortunately, on occasion, (maybe no fault to anyone) conferences might be difficult.  Some things teachers and parents should consider to avoid a negative conference:

Parent and teacher traps to avoid: 

·         Comparing student (teacher) with siblings (last year teacher).
·         Arguing, becoming negative, or being judgmental towards parent or teacher.
·         Becoming defensive:  if you made a mistake (teacher or parent), apologize and move forward, brainstorming to find a solution.  Constructive brainstorming is much better than becoming defensive. 
·         Psychoanalyzing the student (teacher) (parent).
·         Blaming each other or child.

·         Teachers should avoid:  lecturing, speaking in generalities, using professional jargon, overwhelming parents, trying to be the all knowing authority.  Remember, parents are human, they love their children, and it is hard to hear negative things about them.  We are all in this together!  

·         Parents should avoid:  taking the word of others without meeting with teacher, speculating before knowing (ask questions if you have them), demanding or being accusatory. Remember, teachers are human, they love their job and students.  Their goal is to give parents a clear picture of the school day, while setting future goals for success.  We are all in this together!

I know these seem like simple things; however, it is easy to fall into some of these traps if parents/teachers are discouraged or concerned with the developmental progress of their child/student.  Sometime you can fall into these traps due to only having 10-20 minute for your conference.  If extended time is needed from either party, let each other know and establish an agenda to support a positive and collaborative experience, keeping student success at the forefront of all conversations.  
Positive things parents and teachers can do during conferences:

·         Shake hands and welcome each other, acknowledge by name, smile and create a friendly conference environment.
·         Talk about things of interest, establishing a relationship.
·         Make friendly eye contact.
·         Have positive body language.
·         Try to appear unhurried.
·         Have a caring attitude.
·         Be a team, provide strategies with each other’s input.
·         End all conversations on a positive note.
·         Everything you talk about should focus on the student and their future goals while celebrating their success. 

For Teachers:

·        Say something positive: Show parents that you have a positive relationship with their child.  Show parents that you care about their child as if they were your own.  
·         Focus on the 5 things parents want from teachers (see above).
·         Act, instead of react.  Watch body language of parents and adjust if necessary, focusing on positive collaboration.
·         Have some suggestions ready, setting goals for behavior or academic needs.  Know your students and their academic and behavioral characteristics.  
·         Keep to your conference schedule, and if you need more time then reschedule an additional conference. 
·         Let your principal or colleague know if you need support with any of your conferences.  It is always beneficial to work as a team, collaborating to meet the needs of all students.  Parents will appreciate the extra support and ideas to increase learning and/or improve behaviors.  
·         Understand parents: there is nothing more important to them than their children, parents act out of love for their children.  

For Parents:

·         Be on time for your conference and understand that if you are 5-10 minutes late, then that will affect the entire conference schedule for the rest of the day. 
·         Focus on the 5 things teachers want from parents (see above).
·         Don’t wait until conferences to provide teachers with a list of your concerns.  Waiting months to articulate your concerns will only lead to speculation and negative feelings.  Many times a quick conversation or e-mail will answer your questions and put your mind at ease. 
·         Understand educators: the teaching profession is their calling and a life-long journey of learning.  Teachers act out of love for their students and their passion for educating children, helping them become their best.

Co-founder of Love and Logic Institute, Jim Fay, in his CD, Putting Parents at Ease, teaches a variety of tips for building relationships with others within an educational setting.  In my opinion, the ideas can support Parent/Teacher conferences.  Many of these tips are even great for supporting relationships with a spouse, friend, or family member.  Highlights are as follows:

-          Remember that people who look angry and resistant are usually hurting inside.
-          When we remember this, it becomes easier to avoid becoming defensive or angry ourselves.
-          The most powerful skill involves listening and allowing others to vent about their frustrations, before sharing ideas.
-          “Tell me more.” “What would you like to see here?” or “How long have you felt this way?” are great responses to show others how much you care.  
-          Share your ideas only after making sure that the other person is ready.  Asking, “Would you like to hear my thoughts on this?” is a good way of showing respect and testing to see if they are ready to listen.   

In conclusion, teachers, as you enter into conferences, make a great impression! Help parents believe what we already know: your classroom and school are the best, with amazing teachers for their children!  Make sure they leave your room with no doubt in their mind.  Parents should be saying, "there is no better teacher and place to learn for my child!!!!!"

Parents, I will leave you with the conference note my son’s teacher sent to her families, which truly puts conferences into perspective.  It is a letter to parents from their child.  Please keep this in mind when you are listening to the “snapshot” of your child’s learning. 

To my parents,
When you see my snapshot, remember this is a report of someone near and dear to you.  So, please don’t get too uptight if you see a blemish.  I hope you will accept me as I am.
Please do not picture me as being better than all the other children.  Remember that all children do not learn to talk or walk at the same time, nor do they learn math and reading at the same rate.  I ask you not to compare me with my brother, my sister, or the kid next door.  You can set realistic goals for me, but please be careful not to push me to succeed at something that is beyond my ability.
I want you to understand that my report card is a picture of my school progress.  This will show many things about my life at school, even some things that might surprise you.
My teacher knows me as I am at school.  You know how I am at home.  The “real” me is somewhere in between.  When those two pictures become blended with acceptance and understanding, I hope my “snapshot” will be a shining portrait. 
Your child,

It all comes down to positive relationships with teachers, parents, and ultimately students that will enhance success during conferences and throughout the year.  Enjoy conferences, making it a great experience for everyone!

Keith Howell

Friday, October 16, 2015

What's Important?

There are many thoughts, phrases and acronyms that educators utilize when talking about assessment data and student growth.  Simply measuring student learning and reviewing data does not increase learning… Good Instruction Increases Learning!  Data should inform our decisions; however, educators need to be careful, not to get hung up on chasing classroom/building data, but to focus on the following:

  • Building relationships that support a culture of learning
  • Motivating and creating a love for learning
  • Maximizing instructional time that includes many opportunities for descriptive feedback
  • Increasing student engagement, empowering to be lifelong learners

Rather than chasing data we should be focused on creating a culture of achievement, one where assessment data is used to gauge how to create lessons that maximize effectiveness of student engagement and learning.  Educators should utilize assessment strategies that are formative in nature; and that drive decision making, emphasizing flexibility and responsiveness to individuals during the learning process with descriptive feedback.  The most important informal assessment data educators should be looking at is student engagement and excitement for learning.  If educators are able to build positive relationships, maximize instructional time, and create a love for learning that motivates students to be cognitively engaged throughout the day while providing descriptive feedback then we should not need to worry about summative achievement data… they will achieve!

"You have to begin to weigh formative versus summative assessment." Rick Wormeli, author of Fair Isn't Always Equal and Differentiation, explains the difference between the two and how formative assessment helps you offer better feedback to your students. This clip is part of Rick's Fair Isn't Always Equal.

Please consider the following questions after watching the clip from Rick Wormeli:

  • How do I plan for formative and summative assessments within my day and school year?
  • What is the greatest impact on teaching and learning?
  • What should we include within formative assessments to make them most effective?
  • Can a summative assessment become a formative assessment?  
  • How do we give feedback to our students?

Thank you for always putting students first and not thinking they are a number, recognizing their individual needs!  Educators are the best!

Enjoy teaching and learning!

Friday, September 4, 2015

Making Connections

School starts Tuesday!!!!  As we look forward to meeting our students it is important to start the year strong, creating positive and long lasting relations with our students.  Below you will find 10 suggesting to get the year started:

1.     Morning Circle Time – Many of our teachers have morning meetings to start the school day.  Creating a morning meeting, allowing for students to learn about each other beyond school life, builds a classroom community of genuine respect and rapport.  Daily questions can focus on student backgrounds, culture, interests, events of the weekend, favorite foods/music/movies/games, special events, etc.  Becoming familiar with each other on a deeper level will support student self-awareness and acceptance of differences, which will decrease the likelihood of relationship issues during the school year.  Daily questions can focus on favorite experiences, field trips, project based learning activities, individual/class accomplishment or anything that was unique to your classroom.  

2.     Classroom Motto (start the year strong) – One teacher at our school starts the day by reciting the classroom motto.  He tells the students to push the button on their desk and all student proudly recites together, “feel good about yourself!”  Students truly feel good about themselves… not because they say it… because of the sustained teaching that goes along with saying it, creating a community of students who feel good about themselves.  His students feel good about: being a good classmate/friend, the effort they put into an assignment, learning new vocabulary words, solving problems on their own, being a good son/daughter/sibling, improving their writing skills, understanding their target learning, etc.  It works because it is a consistent approach implemented with empathy and support.  

3.     The Unlikely Student – It is “easy to connect” with students who demand your attention due to an outgoing personality, academic needs, or behavioral problems.  Something to consider, write one student’s name in your plan book each day (those who do not demand your time).  Make sure you are connecting with that child throughout the day by noticing their effort:  “Wow! Johnny did a great job on the writing assignment because he added exceptional detail”… and share those accolades with the class.  Notice things that go beyond school life: new shoes/shirt/haircut, asking about weekend, sporting event, video game, recess, family, etc.  It is important that you have a plan to connect, because if you don’t… the “easy to connect” students will demand that time and the “unlikely” student will not be noticed.

4.     Student Inventory – Look for the uniqueness of each child – Have students fill out a student inventory at the start of the year.  Revisit the student inventory that students provided you throughout the year.  Did anything change?  Student inventory example is below:

·         What do you like to do outside of school?
·         What is your favorite season?
·         List 2 of your favorite foods.
·         List 3 games you like to play.
·         What is your favorite animal, color, sport?
·         List your favorite type of music.
·         Do you like to read? What type of books do you like?
·         List 3 movies you like to watch.
·         Who do you like to play with/why?  Friend, parents, grandparents, sister, brother, other.
·         What is your favorite part of the school day?
·         What is your least favorite part of the school day?
·         What is your favorite special/subject?
Higher level inventory questions:
·         What are your dreams?
·         What do you want to be when you grow up?
·         Who would you consider to be your hero and why?
·         If you had unlimited money and could only use it to help people… who would you help and why?

It will be fun for you and your students to see how they have changed or stayed the same over the school year! 

5.     Positive Proximity – Greet your students each morning with a smile and a friendly hello.  Seems simple because it is!   It is also much better than asking “do you have your homework?”  Be present during independent work, supporting students and noticing their efforts throughout the day.  It is even ok to stop by the cafeteria (gym is where we eat lunch) or even shoot a basket or two during recess, positive proximity doesn't need to stop in the classroom.  The extra 2-3 minutes of positive proximity outside your classroom will enhance the community feeling that you are establishing in your classroom. 

6.     Active Listening  – When we are busy it is easy to send students on their way with a quick response, knowing that you would give a better response if you had the time... we do this as parents too!  Next time try saying this:  “Your question/need/etc. is really important to me and you deserve more time than I can give right now… can you hold on for a few minutes/after lunch/until tomorrow/etc. and I will give you the attention you deserve.”  If you say this with empathy, the child will usually feel validated and will (most likely) wait for your attention… sometimes it gives them time to problem solve on their own. Obviously, don't use this approach if there is an emergency or safety issues. 

7.     Tone of Voice  – Be aware of tone, volume and cadence when teaching and managing your classroom.  Use a softer delivery when managing behaviors and classroom procedures, planning and using nonverbal cues.   Use voice fluctuation, storytelling (instead of lecturing), and suspense during your classroom discussions.  Students will love it!  I have been in a lot of classroom where I did not want to leave because the tone was so engaging.  Your voice can set the relationship tone (positively or negatively) within a classroom.  Charlie Brown’s teachers were funny but I don’t think they were building any relationships with their tone of voice.

8.  “I noticed” notes - How it works:  Simply place post-it notes on student’s desk when they least expect it!

I noticed you finished your project today… nice work with great detail!
I noticed you are being a good friend to Johnny… you are kind!
I noticed you helping Sally with her math at lunch… you are a good friend!
I noticed you put great voice in your writing today… nice focus on our target learning!
I noticed you being a good listener… you rock!
I noticed you asking for help on your assignment… way to take charge of your learning!
I noticed you using "active listening" strategies with Sally during turn and talk… keep it up!

You get the idea!  I would not walk around the room giving “I noticed” notes all day… it could decrease the value.  Use it sparingly, maybe three to five per day and keep track, making sure you are noticing everyone over time.  This also works well with number three from above - The Unlikely Student.  I love this strategy because it provides encouragement and accolades to support a positive relationship between you and your students.  It will also teach students to self-regulate their behaviors, assuming responsibility to academic and social learning.  Students will love it and so will you! 

9.     Humor – It is ok to laugh, smile, and tell an appropriate joke from time to time.  Children want to see us having fun during the start of a school year!  A morning joke can go a long way to support positive feelings.  We have children telling Friday jokes on the morning announcements, it’s a lot of fun!

Q: What did the math book say to the other math book?
A: I have a lot of problems!

I love a good joke and so will your students!

10. Closure to the day – Facilitate a reflection discussion at the end of each day, showcasing the academic and social learning that took place.  Give accolades to individuals for positive effort and remember the happy and/or humorous moments during the day… maybe even tell your corny joke again.  Set goals for tomorrow and end the day by saying “be kind to one another,” supporting and modeling the positive feelings you are establishing within your classroom.  Make this a consistent conclusion to your day and they will be eager to return in the morning.

I truly believe that children will not learn from people they do not like or if they do not feel safe within their learning environment.  It is important to make connections that will last a school year.  Watch this inspirational TED Talk by Rita F. Pierson, which showcases the importance of making connections.

TED Talks Education: Rita F. Pierson
Relationships - The Key to Learning
"Kids don't learn from people they don't like!"
"You say it long enough it starts to be a part of you."
"We teach anyway... because that is what we do! We are educators... We are born to make a difference!"
"Every kid needs a champion!"

As the year gets started, I encourage you all to sustain a relationship goal.  Going to a workshop on relationship building might be beneficial but setting a goal, which is maintained over time and a focal point to everything you accomplish, will provide results.  “You say it long enough it starts to be a part of you” and it will be a part of your culture as well. 

Enjoy setting relationship goals to guide and sustain making connections to last the school year and beyond. “Be a champion” for your students!  Please share your thoughts and goals with us!  

Have great start to the school year!!!!


 Rules provided without relationship result in rebellion.
Consequences given without relationship lead to resentment.
Rewards without relationship feel like bribes.

Love and Logic Teacher-isms

Monday, August 3, 2015

Setting Goals

“Daddy, do you want to jump through this hoop?” This is a question my daughter asked me and of course I had to take a couple of pictures!  Besides it being a very cute moment, it reminded me of a comment I heard from one of my friends regarding his goal setting and performance review.  He stated that it is a process of “jumping through hoops” and completing paperwork.  My friend is not an educator but his comments generated a question for me:  How many educators feel the same way?  My guess… there might be a few.

August is the time when many educators start considering goals for the new school year, while having goal setting meetings with their administrators in September.  Goal-Setting for Teachers: 8 Paths for Self-Improvement via @cultofpedagogy is a great read to get you started.  If educators (or anyone in a goal setting profession) feel that setting goals is a process of “jumping through hoops” then the following list of suggestions might help to enhance and change your mindset towards sustaining professional growth:

Be intentional:  The key to a successful goal is to take ownership for that goal rather than viewing the process as an evaluation requirement.  Avoid setting goals that you are already close to achieving.  Set a goal that will support your professional growth and stretch your learning, taking your performance to the next level. 

Make it Motivating:  Build lasting motivation through self-efficacy.  A person with high self-efficacy reflects confidence in the ability to exert control over one's own motivation, behavior, and social environment.  They understand that hard work supports success and adjusting direction is essential if obstacles get in the way of their goals.  People with high self-efficacy will choose their attitude by reacting to obstacles as an opportunity to grow. Make sure the goal is something you want to accomplish, not just something that sounds good.  Set goals to motivate and challenge you and your students throughout the school year! 

Exhibit a Growth Mindset:  What is your mindset?  Are you “jumping through hoops” to meet an evaluation requirement or are you focused on professional growth that will take your professional craft to a new level?  Only you can establish your attitude about goal setting.

Narrow the Focus:  Don’t bite off more than you can chew!  Taking on too many goals can be overwhelming and stepping out of your “comfort zone” to establish a goal may be scary.  Set small attainable goals to reach the ultimate goal.  Take on the SMART philosophy of goal setting:  Make sure goals are Strategic/Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Rigorous/Relevant/Result Oriented, and Time Bound.  

Set an Action Plan and Partner up:  Utilize the “buddy system” to hold each other accountable for your goals.  Write your goals out in complete detail.  Set up regular meetings with a trusted colleague who can support your professional growth initiatives, keeping track of your progress, while celebrating your accomplishments throughout the year.  

Understand that mistakes are part of learning:  Teachers and principals alike need to understand that thinking “outside the box” when establishing goals might result in a few mistakes.  If we continue to do the same thing then we will continue to get the same results.  If we notice something not working then we need to adjust.  It is also important to have a trusting relationship with our administrator where taking risks and trying a new approach is encouraged.  Setting goals and trying new strategies, while demonstrating an enthusiastic approach to our goal setting process and profession, will enhance the quality of our experience and most importantly the quality of our learning culture.  

Last but not least... Embark on your goal setting with a basic question:  Is it good for children?

I always enjoy the start of a new school year!  Try not to “jump through hoops” and always look at goal setting as an opportunity to grow and have honest self-reflection as an educator.  Enjoy setting and sustaining your goals throughout the school year.


Monday, July 6, 2015


A very wise principal suggested that I write a blog post about the importance of SHARPEN THE SAW, based on the work of Stephen Covey.  Great reminder as we relax, spend time with family and friends, gain knowledge, and replenish our energy levels to be amazing educators!  

Summer is a time when I have an increased focus on myself and family.  I attempt to increase (at the very least... maintain) my exercising habits, vacation with my wife and kids, connect with friends, read educational blogs, catch up on home improvement projects, relax and golf. Summer is a great time to reflect and become rejuvenated to start a new school year.

This is the first time in almost 20 years that I do not get the month of July off for vacation.  I am currently transitioning to the Director of Pre K Elementary Instruction position within our district, which is a 12 month position.  On top of that, my wife and I are overjoyed about expecting our 3rd child in September.  It is an exciting summer of learning a new position and getting our house ready for a baby.  More than ever, I need to remember the importance of SHARPEN THE SAW so that I can sustain being my best for others.  

We all want to be highly effective people, but it is impossible to do that unless we are in the correct mindset.  As you transition to another school year it is important to focus on YOU!  Creating a balanced-lifestyle is vital to supporting and enhancing your effectiveness as educators, parents, friends, spouse, etc.  Enjoy the summer and use Covey’s work as a guide to rejuvenation!  

“Sharpen the Saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have--you. It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual. Here are some examples of activities:

Beneficial eating, exercising, and resting
Making social and meaningful connections with others
Learning, reading, writing, and teaching
Spending time in nature, expanding spiritual self through meditation, music, art, prayer, or service

As you renew yourself in each of the four areas, you create growth and change in your life. Sharpen the Saw keeps you fresh so you can continue to practice the other six habits. You increase your capacity to produce and handle the challenges around you. Without this renewal, the body becomes weak, the mind mechanical, the emotions raw, the spirit insensitive, and the person selfish. Not a pretty picture, is it?

Feeling good doesn't just happen. Living a life in balance means taking the necessary time to renew yourself. It's all up to you. You can renew yourself through relaxation. Or you can totally burn yourself out by overdoing everything. You can pamper yourself mentally and spiritually. Or you can go through life oblivious to your well-being. You can experience vibrant energy. Or you can procrastinate and miss out on the benefits of good health and exercise. You can revitalize yourself and face a new day in peace and harmony. Or you can wake up in the morning full of apathy because your get-up-and-go has got-up-and-gone. Just remember that every day provides a new opportunity for renewal--a new opportunity to recharge yourself instead of hitting the wall. All it takes is the desire, knowledge, and skill.”

Enjoy an amazing summer filled with experiences to SHARPEN THE SAW!
Keith Howell

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Prevent "Summer Slide!"

It is finally here: the last week of school and on to summer vacation!  Summer is a time to relax and enjoy some lazy days filled with swimming, family trips, backyard barbecues, and pool parties!  Unfortunately, summer can also be a time when learning decreases for many students and the proverbial “summer slide” can take place. 

How can you tell if your child experiences a “summer slide?”  In our district we provide NWEA assessment graphs with end of the year report cards, which plots scores on an “x” axis on the graph using time intervals between test events.  If there is a drop between the Spring score and the following Fall score, then your child may have fallen victim to the “summer slide,” which is common for many students.   

I have included a variety of ideas to support your children in a fun and empowering manner.  Enjoy the many suggestions that may prevent the dreaded “summer slide!”  I hope you all have a happy summer! 

Summer Reading 

Family Reading – Family reading is one of the most important things we can do for early learners.  Take time to read to your children, which will build listening skills. Asking questions about stories your children are reading will increase comprehension and retelling skills.  Take turns reading aloud together; this will enhance oral language, phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, background knowledge, comprehension, story organization, problem solving, listening comprehension, and writing skills…  wow!  Not only does family reading create bonding time, but it also helps cement great reading skills that will be used in school! 

As you know, reading is the “foundation of success” and is essential in all subjects.  Good readers activate background knowledge and are able to predict, infer, and question while reading.  Fluent readers can put themselves into the text, making self-to-text-connections.  When reading stories together, stop and ask questions, predict, put yourself into the story, and ask, "what would you do?"

Sample Questions:
-          Describe the main character.  Where does the story take place?  When does it take place?
-          Name the supporting characters.
-          What do you think the characters are feeling?  Why do they feel that way?
-          What is the problem in the story?  How does the character deal with the problem?
-          Could the character do something different to solve the problem?
-          What is your favorite part of the story?  Why?
-          Have you ever read a story that is similar to this story?
-          Does this story remind you of anything in your life?
-          If you could rename the story… what would it be?
-          How did the story end?  Would you change the ending?  How?
-          What is the most interesting part of the story?  Why?
-          Did you learn something new?  Give three new facts?  How can you use those facts in your life?
-          What are the main character's traits?  How is the character like you/different from you?
-          What do you think will happen next?
-          Tell an opinion you have about the story.  Tell a fact from the story.

Purpose for reading - Choose why you are reading… for information, enjoyment, etc. allowing time to make connections.

Making Connections - Text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-others – It is important to have conversations to enhance comprehension skills and understanding of the material being read.
-          This story reminds me of when I went swimming because…
-          This story reminds me of when (character from different story/chapter/etc.) made a new friend  because…
-          This story reminds me when my teacher did ______ because…
-          This story reminds me of when we went on vacation because…
-          This character reminds me of my neighbor because…

I am sure you can think of additional questions or connection ideas.  Also, it is not necessary to use every question during your family reading.  Pick three to five questions that will support the particular story and one or two connections.  The goal and hope for family reading, besides great family bonding, is that it will support a natural transfer of skills to the child’s independent reading activities, enhancing comprehension and reading fluency.

Create a Reading Community – Have your child join the local library’s summer reading program or have them start a book club.  Let you children set goals for reading,  while keeping track on a book ‘growth’ chart.  Schedule once a week meetings with friends to discuss the book, enjoying rich conversation during the summer.  You might even want to have a fun summer treat while discussing a favorite part of the book. 

Spelling and Vocabulary:

Spelling City - Practicing spelling was a challenging event in our household until we were introduced to Spelling City, which is a game-based program that provides spelling, vocabulary, and other language arts activities for K-12 cross-curricular word study.  The site offers a free or affordable premium membership that allows children to use their classroom generated spelling list within the program for motivational practice while providing immediate feedback to learners.   No longer do my children complain when being ask to practice spelling.  Give it a try; it might help your family as much as it has helped ours.

Driving vocabulary – Attach three to five vocabulary words on the back of the driver/passenger seat in your car.  While driving, have your child read, spell, and tell the meaning of each word, using them in a sentence.  Change the words every week or two but don’t tell your children when the words will change… anticipation will increase excitement for new vocabulary words. Have children keep a driving journal, keeping track of the new words they are learning.  Make sure the words are grade level appropriate and keep it fun.  You can also use this strategy to practice new spelling words.

Vocabulary practice/sentence building – Place words on index cards in two different piles – mix them up and see who can make a sentence.  Make a game out of this activity, creating a point system and the first one to 50 points wins! 

Label the house – Label some items in your house with index cards.  Environmental print supports immediate recall and enhances reading fluency.

Word of the week – Take a higher level vocabulary word and make it the “word of the week” in your house.  Use it in sentences, post it in the house, spell it together, and encourage them to incorporate the word into their writing at school.  Try to make it fun!

Personal Word Bank – Create a personal or family word bank in a journal or notebook, generating vocabulary words for future writing activities.  You can even add your “word of the week” to your journal, making your own personal thesaurus.


Students need practice to support good writing – try to keep it fun!

Sports journal – While watching a game, keep a journal of favorite plays so that you can go back and try it on the field.  Summer baseball is heating up (Go Tigers!) and the NFL season is right around the corner (Go Lions!), which can provide many writing opportunities, listing exciting plays or favorite players. 

Family time capsule journal – Keep track of movies/family vacations/major news happenings/special sporting events/birthdays, etc. in a family journal.  You can add pictures and make it into a scrap book of memories and thoughts that can be remembered for years to come.

Writing for a purpose – Write a letter to a company that makes the best chocolate, game, toy, golf club, etc.  Maybe they will send you some free goodies as a thank you!  Write a letter if you are not impressed with a product.  I wonder if the CEO of the company will respond?

Popplet – Used as a mind-map, Popplet helps students think and learn visually.  Students can capture facts, thoughts, and images while learning to create relationships between them.  Check out my previous post – Popplet:Supporting son's writing homework - he loves to build!


When teaching 4th and 5th grade, I focused on the students’ ability to understand math concepts and think mathematically. Unfortunately, some of my students had a difficult time because they lacked the ability to recall basic facts. They understood the process; however, they scored low on assessments due to simple computation mistakes throughout the problem.  I always encouraged my students to practice math facts for five minutes a day when they were at home.  Five extra minutes of intense practice per day might not seem like much, but it adds up quickly. By the end of the summer, they will do over 400 minutes of extra basic facts practice!  For additional strategies, check out edutopia- 10 apps for math fluencyFree Apps:

For the past couple of years, our building has been utilizing Think Through Math  (TTM) as a supplemental tool for fourth and fifth grade students in conjunction with our district math curriculum.  We have found it to be extremely beneficial.  Think Through Math does exactly what its name suggests.  It provides students with opportunity to understand mathematical concepts rather than just getting to a final answer.   The uniqueness of TTM is that students can connect with a LIVE certified teacher when they are unable to solve a problem on their own.   They can also access the program from home!  TTM understands the importance of immediate support when a student is struggling with a new concept.  Connecting and interacting with a live teacher enhances the likelihood of student success, while taking their mathematical skills to the next level.  Check out a previous post for more detail about TTM. 

It is amazing how many free (and very reasonably priced) apps are out there to support learning.  My kids are using a variety of apps to practice reading and math concepts along with basic facts.  I like ABC Mouse and Grasshopper Apps for reading, and there are many different basic facts apps that engage and reward students for their efforts.  I will usually have them “play” an educational app for 15 minutes before they start playing one of their iPad games; Minecraft is usually their game of choice right now!  Take time to visit the app store or Google top educational apps for reading/math/etc.  You will find many that could fit your child’s educational interests and needs.


The creative and building aspect of Minecraft allows players to build constructions out of textured cubes in a 3D world.  Not only is it exciting to children (both of mine would play for hours if we let them), it provides them with collaboration and problem solving skills.  They are learning skills such as reading, math, inventorying, geometry, social skills, and the interactive environment supports children’s ability to understand cause and effect.  Children can even select various languages.  So, the next time your child wants to play Minecraft, you might just see it as a learning opportunity.

These are some of the additional learning opportunities I have used with my children, or have suggested to parents, to decrease the “summer slide.” Please remember the importance of keeping things fun and enjoyable while empowering children’s intrinsic motivation to be life-long learners.  Most importantly, don’t forget the need for family time, playing board games, enjoying a bike ride, putting together a puzzle and having rich conversations with your children, all activities which enhance family relationships.

Enjoy learning throughout the summer

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Professional Growth

The evaluation tool should operate as a support to teachers and administrators, guiding our instructional conferences and encouraging continuous improvement within our craft of educating children.    We should have a strategic plan that changes with the landscape of education throughout our careers.  Educators should focus on building relationships that motivates and creates a love for learning, maximizes instructional time, increases engagement, and empowers students to be life-long learners!  

So, as you finalize your evaluation for 2015 and consider goals for next school year, remember to utilize the evaluation tool as an instrument to flourish, supporting and enhancing your professional growth. 

How should teachers view the professional growth process?   As an experience to:

•             Grow as a professional, creating opportunities to set goals and embrace professional development to sustain growth.  Provide quality differentiated instruction for all students, while focusing on innovative ways to improve classroom instruction and ultimately student learning.

•             Collaborate efforts between fellow teachers, working as a team to improve building climate and instruction. 

•             Be positive!  Embrace change with an open mind and be an active participant during professional growth meetings and instructional conferences.  Be prepared and excited to sustain learning. 

•             Develop high expectations for yourself and students while consistently self-reflecting on your teaching and professional growth. 

•             Build trust and personal relationships with building principal and colleagues, approach the  evaluation process in a professional manner, willing to accept positive and constructive feedback.

•             Be open about concerns or frustrations, working with building principal to problem solve solutions rather than remaining stagnant. 

•             Remain confidential regarding your rating within the evaluation process.  The process should be an experience of continuous improvement and discussing ratings between teachers is not recommended.    It’s another reason why I continue to advocate for the elimination of the highly effective rating, while changing the mindset from an “evaluation” process to a “professional growth” process.

•             Understand that the teacher evaluation process is never final, we are always setting professional goals focused on improvement.

•             Accept that a single classroom observation (one way or another) does not provide the entire picture.  Multiple visits during the year and honest self-reflection is necessary to make a holistic assessment of effectiveness. 

•             Recognize that our children deserve and need effective teachers!  If you are unable sustain a positive evaluation ratting then you must have an honest conversations with yourself, your principal or a trusted colleague.  Find a mentor that can support you, either by reestablishing your teaching skill set or counseling you into another profession. 

•            Embark on all decisions with a basic question:  Is it good for children?

I always value the work teachers and administrators do each and every day.  Our jobs are difficult but extremely rewarding.  Thank you for always putting students first and recognizing their individual needs! 

Reflecting on our effectiveness is important… what we do after we reflect is professional growth! Keep reflecting and making the most of your profession.  Educators are the best!

Have a great week!

Keith Howell

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Saturday, May 9, 2015

Modern Learning Questions

During the MACUL15 conference I had the good fortune to attend a session hosted by  @KleinErin @ShawnCRubin @thomascmurray on Personalized Instruction for ALL Learners and Create a Brain-Friendly, Blended Learning Space.  The session was extremely inspirational and generated many great questions that I will continue to focus my learning on this summer:  
  • How much has changed in past 100 years?  Why do classrooms still look the same today as they did 100 years ago?  
  • Where do you want to go to school?  
  • In what type of world will our kids live?  
  • How can we enhance what we already do well?  
  • What motivates our students?  
  • Can we make learning memorable?  
  • “Kids are instant!”  How can we prepare curriculum and instruction that matches their learning style?   
  • How can we personalize instruction?
  • What digital learning tools are needed to enhance personalized instruction and student collaboration?
  • How can we restructure our day?  
  • What are the learning outcomes we want for our students?  What technology is to be the “accelerator” to those learning outcomes?  
  • What should we “put up” in our classrooms?  Should we ditch the desks?  
  • How should we arrange the layout in the classroom?  What does good design look like?  
  • Should we create “Maker Spaces” within our classrooms and schools?  
  • Are we Future Ready?  
  • What is best for kids?  
The inspirational session may have lead to additional questions for me; however, it is these questions that will continue to drive our educational beliefs and decision-making about modern learning.  I look forward to using these questions as a guide to enhance personalized instruction for all learners while creating a blended learning space that is brain-friendly.  What exciting times in education!

Please share what your summer learning will consist of this year.
Enjoy teaching and learning!

“We should strive to be the teacher that we want our own children to have!”  @KleinErin