Posted in Virtual Book Club

Review – Educated by Design by Michael Cohen

In my work as a Technology Integrator, one of my greatest challenges was helping students and teachers see the potential for creativity that our new and ever changing technology afforded us. It was just too easy to use our devices simply for record keeping and consuming digitized content. Dr. Ruben Puentedura’s SAMR Model helped us understand how technology can transform teaching and learning, but in actual practice most teachers found it difficult to move beyond substitution or augmentation, and opportunities for activating our own and our students’ creativity were missed.

Michael Cohen, the Tech Rabbi, addresses the disconnect between creativity and teaching practice in his book Educated by Design: Designing the Space to Experiment, Explore, & Extract Your Creative Potential. He makes the argument that we all have the potential for creativity, and he’s careful to make clear distinctions between creativity and talent, and between skill and artistry. He illustrates the book with quotes and aphorisms meant to inspire teachers to develop a creative mindset and take the risks necessary to design learning opportunities that could unleash student creativity. He relates examples and anecdotes from his teaching successes and failures, and his last chapter includes activities and ideas that teachers can use to begin constructing their own creativity toolkit.

creativity illustration
Creativity flickr photo by Hldrmn shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license

Cohen devotes a whole chapter to the role of empathy in the creative process, an idea that I found particularly interesting. Most creative process models begin with preparation and/or definition of a problem as the first step, but Cohen suggests that without empathy, proposed solutions to a problem are likely to fail. Although he presents empathy as a first step, he also demonstrates how it’s woven through the whole process and how it inspires creativity.

The chapter on collaboration is a must-read for all teachers. Anyone who has ever attempted group projects has probably observed the experience Cohen describes here. Generally when a group of students is assigned a challenge, one or two do all the work while the rest sit back and watch. I learned long ago (the hard way) that randomly assigning students to a group seldom promotes true collaboration. Each individual must feel that they are bringing something valuable to the process. Forming groups where students take on specific roles based on their strengths and interests and where they see a purpose to their work will lead to more successful outcomes.

Maybe our biggest takeaway from this book should be that teachers must be designers. So often we fall into a rut, doing things the same way year after year, often following a canned curriculum using someone else’s lesson plans. I have found that the greatest joy of teaching comes from designing a learning opportunity for students that inspires them to think creatively to answer an essential question or solve a real problem. Our challenge is to take the Tech Rabbi’s advice and ideas and use them to revise our own teaching practice.

Michael Cohen, the Tech Rabbi, will be the keynote speaker and presenter at the 2019 ACTEM Conference on Friday, October 11, and copies of Educated by Design will be available at the ACTEM store.

Posted in Virtual Book Club

Review – Learning Transformed by Eric C. Sheninger and Thomas C. Murray

This review can also be found in the June 2019 issue of The Connected Educator.

No one can deny that our schools are not meeting the needs of all students, and in this fast-changing world, much of what we do is often ineffective or irrelevant. So much of how we run our schools is based on tradition and our collective memory of how we ourselves were schooled. We know we need to change, but schools are complex institutions and it’s hard to know where to begin.

classroom with desks in rows
Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

In Learning Transformed: 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow’s Schools, Today, Eric Sheninger and Thomas Murray provide a roadmap for change that’s both innovative and practical. The primary audience for this book is school leaders but, as the authors suggest, meaningful change comes from “leaders by action” rather than “leaders by title” and they can be anyone in the school community.

The authors devote a chapter to each of their eight identified keys to designing (or redesigning) schools. Each chapter breaks down the big idea (the key) into its elements and provides a research-based rationale for the advice and action steps given. Chapters end with an “Innovative Practices in Action” section where school leaders from around the country describe how they succeeded in bringing substantial change to their buildings or districts.

The chapter on leadership and culture contains many of the themes that run through any discussion of how to turn vision into action: communicating, building relationships, delegating (but not too much), modeling, reflecting, etc. We’ve heard these ideas before, but they bear repeating. Educational technology is discussed throughout the book, including a whole chapter on leveraging technology with advice for building an infrastructure and addressing some of the issues that we in Maine have struggled with since MLTI brought one-to-one computing to every middle school in the state.

The chapter titled “Designing Learner Centered Spaces” may be the most interesting and valuable in the book. Often when we think of school reform, we pay little attention to the effect the physical space can have on learning. This chapter cites research about school environments and gives practical tips for creating inviting and flexible learning spaces and avoiding what the authors call the “cemetery effect” where desks are in rows with the teacher in front. The theme of this chapter is that learning is not confined to the traditional classroom, and we can design physical and virtual spaces that provide students and teachers with variety and choice.

If you only have time for one chapter of this book, read Chapter 5, “Making Professional Learning Personal.” I have been on both the giving and receiving end of ineffective professional development practices, so this chapter resonated with me. Much of what passes for professional learning opportunities for teachers is a just a series of one-size-fits-all sessions where an expert is brought in to tell teachers how to do it better. It may or may not be relevant to an individual teacher’s practice and seldom has any lasting effect. Where teachers are given choice, their “development” is measured by the amount of time spent in coursework or in-service classes rather than by how they improve their practice. This chapter promotes a personalized plan for professional learning that allows teachers to combine a variety of learning experiences including  personal and professional networks, peer observations, coaching, Edcamps, and other formal and informal opportunities. Professional learning should be embedded in the culture of the school so it’s ongoing and expected, and its success is measured by outcomes, not hours.

The authors are experienced educators and administrators with extensive backgrounds in educational technology, and this book reflects their research and expertise, providing practical ideas for designing better schools for today and for the future. Thomas Murray will be a keynote speaker and presenter at the 2019 ACTEM Conference. Come hear him on Thursday, October 10 to learn more about how these 8 keys can help you and your school community transform learning.



Posted in Virtual Book Club

Hacking Leadership by Joe Sanfelippo and Tony Sinanis

As a teacher, I often said that there are two kinds of administrators: those you work with and those you work around. In my more than four decades in education, I’m afraid most of the administrators I worked for fell into the latter category. Often they are good managers who impose order on a building or district. They oversee the daily operation of the schools while sticking to a budget. They hire and fire employees and preside over meetings. They make the buses run on time. But they’re not the educational leaders and mentors that I and most teachers truly want and need, and as the kind of teacher who tried to be innovative and take risks, I found myself hiding from these administrators rather than seeking their advice or feedback on my work. But occasionally I had the opportunity to work for administrators who were true educational leaders, and they all became mentors who had a profound effect on my teaching practice.

Faculty Meeting
Faculty Meeting flickr photo by Editor B shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

In the book Hacking Leadership: 10 Great Ways Leaders Inspire Learning That Teachers, Students, and Parents Love, the authors, Joe Sanfelippo and Tony Sinanis offer advice for administrators who strive to be that kind of leader. They identify problems administrators will encounter in their schools and provide ways to address these problems that will promote a culture of creativity and collaboration and lead to better communication among teachers, students, and community. The book is part of the Hack Learning Series published by Mark Barnes, and it follows a format where each chapter identifies a problem and offers a practical solution (the hack). The chapters also include immediate and long-term steps school leaders can take, as well as ideas for overcoming pushback and examples of what success looks like.

The beauty of this book lies in its practicality. All ten hacks are steps any administrator can take. Many of them seem obvious (get out of your office and into classrooms) and others are solutions to problems that school leaders might not have identified yet (use social media to tell your school’s story before someone else does). Adopting even one of the ten strategies is bound to have a positive impact.

Much of the book is about building relationships and shaping culture, and in the introduction, the authors note “…the school leader sets the tone and has the greatest single influence on a school’s positive or negative culture.” I’ve often thought the greatest single step we can take toward real education reform is to make school a place where teachers and students want to be every day. The authors devote a chapter (Hack 2) to culture, but the other hacks are related to it. Certainly building relationships (Hack 3), centering school around the children (Hack 6), and helping educators learn from each other (Hack 9) are all steps that will lead to a positive school culture.

I think we often underestimate the effect that leadership (or sometimes lack thereof) has on a school or a district’s success. School reformers usually focus on teacher quality, but that’s just one small piece of the puzzle. There will always be great teachers and not-so-great teachers, but leaders affect the school as a whole and are responsible for students’ overall school experience. The hacks described in this book are steps administrators can take to become the kind of leader folks will work with, rather than around.






Posted in Literacy, Technology Integration, Virtual Book Club

Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens by Lisa Guernsey and Michael H. Levine

The question, “Which is better, print text or digital text?” is one that I hear often from friends and colleagues. I was teaching reading and writing back when reading on a computer was something one could only imagine a Star Trek character doing. I always had a wide variety of reading materials other than books in my classroom for kids to read including newspapers, magazines, comic books, TV and movie scripts, etc., and I encouraged kids to read everything. That may explain why, with the advent of computers in schools, I didn’t think too much about whether kids should be reading from screens. I was focused more on the benefits of digital text for struggling readers than on whether digital books may be harmful to young readers.

Recently there have been several articles suggesting that reading digital books rather than print books may have a negative effect on comprehension, causing me to wonder whether we should be encouraging students to read ebooks at all. The book Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens was recommended by a friend who recently became a grandfather and worried about the role of screens in his grandchild’s life. It addresses questions about technology, twenty-first-century literacy, and equal opportunities for all students to gain the literacy and critical thinking skills necessary for success.  Its goal, in the words of the authors, is “to stop seeing technology and reading as in opposition to each other, and instead start building places, online and off, that put media in service of reading and, more broadly, in service of literacy and critical thinking for all kids.”

Child and mother with Apple iPad
flickr photo by IntelFreePress shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

The book focuses on young children and makes three major points about technology and literacy. The first is that, in the 21st century, we cannot limit our literacy instruction to print books. Children can gain background knowledge and vocabulary from all kinds of media and we must strive to give all children, regardless of family background or income level, opportunities to engage with new literacies from a very young age. The second point concerns the social interaction aspects of literacy. The authors use Sesame Street as an example. The Children’s Television Workshop found that children learned more when a parent or caregiver watched the show with them and talked with them about it. The same applies to reading books, whether they are print books or interactive digital books. Children need to interact with humans and it’s these interactions that lead to gains in all aspects of literacy. The third major point is that parents and teachers need to be thoughtful about the apps and ebooks they choose for children. The authors offer advice and examples of books and apps where the interactive elements further the narrative and are not merely distractions.

We cannot ignore the prevalence of screens and media in our children’s lives, and we do them a disservice if we only teach reading from print books. Other aspects of literacy – listening, speaking, viewing, thinking, and creating must also be addressed. Physical books will continue to have a place in our homes and classrooms, but balancing print literacy with other literacies is essential.

What do you think? What challenges and successes have you experienced when your students read from a screen? What professional development and support do teachers need to help students with these new literacies? Whether or not you’ve read (or intend to read) this book, I’d love to read your comments.


Posted in Literacy, Virtual Book Club

Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers by Penny Kittle

Book with pages forming a heart
flickr photo by Pradyumna Prabhu shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license

We’ve all seen it. We give students a reading assignment and they pretend to read it. They get by in class because we feed them what we want them to know, and they give it back on the test (often with a little help from SparkNotes). If you ask, many middle and high school students will admit that they haven’t read a book from cover to cover since elementary school (and some not even then).

This is the issue Penny Kittle openly and honestly addresses in Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent ReadersMost students are not reading much and therefore are not building the stamina they need to keep up with the reading that college courses require, around 200-600 pages a week according to Kittle. This may in part account for the low percentage of college students who actually graduate, but success in college is only one of the consequences of increasing reading volume. People who read often and a lot are lifelong learners who make wiser decisions and are more likely to pass the reading habit and love of books on to their children.

A large portion of this book is devoted to the idea that students will read more when they are given choice and allowed to find and read the books that interest them. They also need time to read in class and guidance (mostly through conferencing) in setting goals, choosing books, overcoming challenges, and responding to what they’re reading through writing. Kittle provides advice gleaned from years of experience as an English teacher whose classes are workshops where students read independently, reflect on their growth as readers, and share their love of books with each other. While she understands the curricular and assessment requirements imposed on ELA teachers, she advocates for a balance of individual choice and required  whole-class text study, but suggests a greater percentage of time for the former.

In the last chapter of the book, Kittle addresses the challenge of creating a school-wide reading culture, a community of readers. In my mind, this is the greater challenge, but one that must be met if our goal is to inspire lifelong readers. We’ve all seen attempts at school-wide sustained silent reading time, and most of them fail, generally through a lack of commitment and shared intent. Kittle describes her success in creating a school-wide reading break, as well as other ideas for creating a reading community.

A few years ago, Kittle created a video where she asked students about their reading habits and whether they read assigned books. I’ve asked this question in my school with similar results.

Our students’ lack of reading stamina is something most of us will acknowledge, but how do we turn it around? Is allowing more choice the answer? Is this something we can do while focusing on standards-based instruction and proficiency-based assessment? How important is it that all students read the classics? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

By the way, Penny Kittle will be one of the keynote speakers at the MAMLE Conference at Point Lookout, October 20 and 21.

Posted in Literacy, Virtual Book Club

Reading Nonfiction Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies by Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst

Nonfiction stacks in a library
flickr photo by Timberland Regional Library shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

I first read this book last October after I purchased it at the MAMLE Conference. I had been thinking about how students attack demanding reading tasks, especially after a teacher told me about the difficulty some kids in her homeroom were having with an assignment. They were given a long nonfiction text to read on their own, outside of class, with no preparation or support. The amount and density of the text paralyzed them; they had no idea what to do. Their homeroom teacher wanted to help them and was looking for strategies. This book proved to be exactly what teachers need to help students become more skillful, active readers of nonfiction.

I knew I would like this book as soon as I read the introduction where the authors made clear that this would not be a didactic screed that purports to have the one true answer for producing excellent little readers. Instead, they suggest you read it, question it, and pull from it whatever works for you and your students. It’s a book for practitioners, and while research is referenced and cited, the focus is on practice, and the authors recount their experiences as they modeled these practices in real classrooms with real students.

As the subtitle suggests, Beers and Probst offer three big questions to develop students’ questioning stance, five signposts to help them understand the author’s craft and intent, and seven strategies to help them think about the text and fix any problems they are having. They describe their experiences modeling and teaching students how to use these questions, signposts and strategies for close reading and discussion of nonfiction texts.

Although all of these seem valuable, I can see spending a whole year just teaching and practicing them with students. Having said that, I do think all teachers can at least get students started with the three big questions they should ask themselves as they read. The questions are:

  • What surprised me?
  • What did the author think I already knew?
  • What challenged, changed, or confirmed what I already knew?

These are described in Part II of the book, and as I read this section, I realized how familiar it all sounded. I usually read nonfiction books with a pencil in my hand so I can mark them up (or use sticky notes if it’s a borrowed book). I do this because it helps me focus and make connections, and apparently I’m asking myself questions that are similar to Beers and Probst’s big three. Most of my notes are answers to one of those questions. I think teaching students to do the same would be an effective first step in helping them read and think more deeply. The authors suggest making classroom posters with these questions so students can easily refer to them, and I did just that for the teacher who wanted to help her homeroom students. I think the signposts and strategies that are described in Parts III and IV  would be most effective if they were part of a comprehensive literacy initiative adopted by a whole school or district, but the three big questions are simple enough for any teacher to begin using right away.

The intended audience for this book is not just reading teachers or literacy coaches. It is a valuable resource for any teacher at any grade level or in any content area. This would be an excellent choice for a PLG book study or as a faculty-wide common reading. You can preview the book and view a video of the authors on the publisher’s website. If you’ve read this book and tried using any of the questions, signposts, or strategies, please share your experiences in the comments and let us know how your students reacted and whether it helped them with close reading of nonfiction text.


Posted in Purpose, Virtual Book Club

It’s Summer! Start Reading!

Woman reading book
flickr photo by Spirit-Fire shared under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

I’m starting a little later than I intended (other projects got in the way), but I’m resurrecting my little summer book club. I’ll be reading and reviewing some professional books this summer and I invite you to join me. The procedure is the same as last summer and I’d love to have some company in reading and thinking about topics in education. If you’d like to be a co-author of this blog and write some reviews, let me know and I’ll send you an invitation. In compiling my list, I noticed that many of the books I’m reading are literacy related (I guess that’s what’s on my mind now) so I’d welcome some topic diversity.

I’ll begin by reviewing a book that I’ve already read. I’m rereading  Reading Nonfiction Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies by Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst. I read it last fall, soon after it came out, and I recommended it to several of my colleagues then. Look for my review of it in a day or two. I’ll also be reading (and listening to) some fiction. I probably won’t review any of it unless something momentous like last summer’s Go Set a Watchman comes my way, but I’d be happy to host other readers’ reviews.

I hope you’ll consider joining the conversation, whether it’s in the comments or by reviewing books you are reading this summer. All opinions are welcome, and remember, actually reading the book isn’t a requirement for commenting. This isn’t that kind of book club.