What it’s like to be an elementary school teacher – Part 10

A National Board Certified Teacher explains what an educator’s life is really like. The series is a value-added collection of Best ClassAntics Posts EVER! Each post explains something about a teacher’s life and links to ClassAntics posts with relevant teaching tips.

Part Ten: We spend time and money on professional development

Teachers keep their skills current by spending time on professional development.  We take courses, attend workshops, read books, and work toward special certifications.

Lately, professional learning communities have become popular.   My grade level team formed our own professional learning community before it became a directive from the district.  We developed best practices that really helped us meet the students’ needs.  In my series of posts, I share our tips with you.

Extremely dedicated teachers pursue National Board Certification, undergoing a rigorous process of evaluation and professional development.  My posts on National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) explain why the certificate is valuable and why having a NBCT in the classroom benefits your child.

Teachers like to read up on pedagogy and child development.  One of our all-time favorite books is Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14.  The book is always helpful for its descriptions of children’s learning styles and thought processes at different ages.  It becomes invaluable when a teacher is switching grade levels.

Teachers like to learn more about the world around them.  They might take college classes or seminars in the content area they teach.  Or they might learn for fun with The Great Courses, videotaped lectures on a variety of subjects.

It’s a cliché, but it’s true: teachers are lifelong learners!


National Center for Educational Statistics

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP test, is commonly called “The Nation’s Report Card.”  The results of this test are commonly cited in news articles comparing states, noting areas of weakness in our students, and analyzing trends.

I think anyone with an interest in education would enjoy perusing the state profiles at the National Center for Educational Statistics.  The data at your fingertips is just amazing.  You can highlight your state and immediately see NAEP data for both 4th and 8th grades for the last ten years.  It’s interesting to see how many students in your state scored at or above basic, proficient, and advanced.

The real fun comes when you compare the states.  The website makes it so easy.  Say you want to compare the 4th grade reading data in your state.  Go down to the chart of scores and click on “compare.”  You are taken to a screen that looks like this.  Now the states are color coded to indicate which states had a higher average scale score, which states were not significantly different, and which states had a lower average scale score.  You can see the same score data in two graph types: bar and line graphs.

The NAEP website is a good place to find demographic data for your state.  Just scroll down and you’ll see it on the side of the screen: the number of students, teachers, the student-to-teacher ratio, the ethnic breakdown, and more.  Here is an example for New Hampshire.


  • The data can be helpful for the just plain curious.  How does your state really stack up against all others?  Is the situation as dire as politicians would have you believe?
  • The data can help you with papers for advanced degree programs, professional development, or presentations.
  • The charts, graphs, and map-with-comparisons are wonderful examples of data for your class.  I really like how you can see the same data in a table, map, bar graph, or line graph.


Posted in Education Policy and Reform,Math by Corey Green @ Mar 20, 2012


Speed Reading

I always thought I was a fast reader—until I met my mentor teacher.  She puts me to shame!   I thought it must be some natural talent of hers, not something that I could learn.  True teacher that she is, my mentor wouldn’t let me off so easily.  Speed reading is a skill you can acquire.  My mentor learned it as a child from a teacher who had a speed reading machine.

It was years before I figured out what a speed reading machine was—more on that later.  But that summer, I took a course in speed reading through my local university.  On the first night, we learned to track our reading with our fingers, just like a first grader.  Then we practiced all summer.

And I consider it $350 well spent.

Yes, sliding your finger under the words like a first grader really will make you a faster reader.  Our eyes wander all over the page, slowing down our reading.  We reread sections and don’t even realize it.  Tracking with your finger combats this human frailty.

People tend to vocalize the words we read.  Little kids actually read everything out loud.  Most older kids (and adults) tend to read silently, but we pronounce the words in our heads.  By tracking with your finger, you can move faster than your mind can pronounce the words.  With a little practice, you’ll get to the point where you feel like you’re reading with lightning speed—because you’re flashing past the words, absorbing their meaning but not pronouncing every phoneme.

In addition to just getting faster, there are unexpected uses for speed reading:

  • It keeps you focused (and awake).  Speed reading will help you pull an all-nighter.
  • It gets you through boring text.  Focus on the skill of speed reading, not the dull text you are required to read.  College kids and those working on master’s programs, take note!

I found an online speed reading machine that teaches you how to focus your eyes.  You can let your students use it individually in the computer lab.  I like to project the online speed reading machine using our classroom computer-projector hookup.  Then the whole class can practice together.  The strong readers pull everyone else along.

You have to input your own text into the online speed reading machine.  Use free books from Project Gutenberg or just pull text from online encyclopedias and articles for kids.  My class and I had the best time doing that.  I let the kids suggest topics for study.  In this manner, we learned about everything from sea turtles to Justin Bieber.  The kids had so much fun learning about a variety of topics that they forgot they were improving their reading fluency.

Want to learn more about speed reading?  Click here for an article about speed reading from the Four Hour Workweek Guy.

Posted in Academics,Fun With Literacy by Corey Green @ Dec 19, 2011


Best Practices for Professional Learning Communities (Part 3)

Part Three: Build relationships with your part-time students

This is part of an occasional series about Professional Learning Communities— I dubbed it Trade & Teach, a practice of assessing all students in a grade level and creating leveled groups taught by different teachers. It can work really well in elementary schools, but I have noticed the trend is to reinvent the wheel in the name of teacher buy-in. Rather than that, I offer Best Practices advice from tried and true implementation experience in real third grade classrooms. If you’re not familiar with Professional Learning Communities, read the Wiki here.

It’s always important to build relationships with your students, but in Trade & Teach, it’s absolutely essential.  The students are disoriented unless you make a special effort to build community.  (After all, we’re talking about Professional Learning Communities, aren’t we?)

**In order to build these relationships, you must have students for a significant length of time.  This is just one more reason to assess wisely—and not too frequently. 

There are definite benefits to building community:

Optimizing the learning climate: If the students feel like they have been thrust into an unfamiliar classroom with a different teacher and different classmates, what do you think will be foremost in their minds?  Not learning! Give the students a chance to get to know you and each other.  Play icebreaker games or just introduce yourselves.  Find out students’ favorites in regard to the subject matter at hand.  Let students form teams based on their homeroom.  This way, they can tackle learning challenges without stressing about working with unfamiliar classmates.

Assessing & Addressing Students’ Needs:  Sure, you have a general idea of what your students need because you know how they scored on the assessment: above level, on level, or below level.  You can prepare lesson plans based on that, but your teaching will be more effective if you get to know the students as individuals.  You might tap into shared interests that can provide structure to otherwise rote practice, such as practicing paragraph writing about animals, cars or whatever your students like.  You might discover that the students are already very good at some skills but just need advice on how to show this on tests.  Test-taking lessons are very different from skills-based lessons.

Forming a Partnership: When Trade & Teach is really humming along, students benefit because they have two teachers who truly care about them.  You are the specialist, and you can coordinate care with the primary provider—the child’s homeroom teacher—and the child’s parents.  For extra games or resources to use at home, communicate directly with parents.  Got a problem or concern?  Go to the child’s homeroom teacher first, then the two of you can decide how best to approach the parent.

Trade & Teach can really help if you think a child needs targeted intervention or testing for a learning disability.  With two or more academic teachers seeing the child, it’s easier to tell if problems are part of an environment or seen across the board.  It’s harder for gatekeepers to dismiss a problem as one teacher jumping the gun if several teachers worked with the child and noticed the same issues.

This series on Professional Learning Communities Best Practices is made possible by Valerie, Donina, Bethany and Heather … an amazing third grade team!

Posted in Professional Learning Communities by Corey Green @ Nov 14, 2011


Best Practices for Professional Learning Communities (Part 2)

Part Two: Address students’ needs

This is part of an occasional series about Professional Learning Communities— I dubbed it Trade & Teach, a practice of assessing all students in a grade level and creating leveled groups taught by different teachers. It can work really well in elementary schools, but I have noticed the trend is to reinvent the wheel in the name of teacher buy-in. Rather than that, I offer Best Practices advice from tried and true implementation experience in real third grade classrooms. If you’re not familiar with Professional Learning Communities, read the Wiki here.

In order for Trade & Teach to be successful, the emphasis must be on addressing students’ needs.  Think about the strengths and weaknesses of students in each group, and address them directly.

I have seen Trade & Teach function in the opposite way— students split into leveled groups, but all teachers teaching the same subject—Chapter X.  All students take the same assessment a week later.  What actually happens is just leveling students, then teaching to the middle in each group.  Such a situation can arise as an unintended consequence of violating the rules of wise assessment.

Following are Best Practices for addressing students’ needs.  I have given examples for each of the 3 Rs: Reading, wRiting, and ‘Rithmetic.

Above-level students need a challenge that focuses on synthesis and application.  Regardless of the subject, they should be working on solving problems and functioning as independently as possible.  Try to put these students above their comfort zone.  They spend most of school well within it—which is not the best place for learning.

Reading: Compare a novel or short story to research on that topic.  (Examples: From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and research on Michelangelo and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Or Teammates and research on Jackie Robinson.)  Then show how the book used information correctly in some places and took poetic license in others.  Bonus: Write a short story using information about a certain topic.

wRiting: Create advanced material and be meticulous about taking it through every stage of publication.  Be sure to make the material fit the intended audience.  Example: survey classmates to assess their favorites, then create a newspaper, blog or magazine tailored to the taste of the class.

‘Rithmetic: Apply area, perimeter and geometry in designing a blueprint for a house.  Work within constraints—lot size, budget, time, materials.  Another idea: break a skill down to its component parts and design a small workbook to teach younger children.


On-level students need to work on skills maintenance—these are the students firmly based in the “use it or lose it” camp.  Without constant practice, they will slide, not grow.  On-level students also need challenges, but theirs should be scaffolded so students feel successful at every step.

ReadingPractice fluency by performing Readers’ Theater plays.  Focus on skills with workbooks targeted at the components of good reading—comparing, summarizing, finding details, etc.  Read a novel together with scaffolding to ensure comprehension at every step.  Different activities for different chapters will keep things interesting: summarize some, create a timeline for chapters with lots of action, and predict when a chapter ends with a cliffhanger.

wRiting:  Work together as a class to outline and then write a five paragraph essay.  Students should spend ample time at each step and get teacher approval before progressing.  This way, mistakes can be corrected and techniques can be honed.  Children at this level would also enjoy creating comic strips to give directions or teach about a topic.

‘Rithmetic: Work on problems from the grade level standards and textbooks, but stop and remedy problems that crop up along the way.  For example, this group may be fine at 3 digit subtraction, but not if it involves subtracting across zeroes.  Slow down and focus on this skill.  A good scaffolded project would be creating a picture book that depicts multiplication arrays with a fun theme, similar to the cookies in The Doorbell Rang.


Below-level students need remediation.  I show them that the root word is remedy—a cure.  They need tasks that are like medicine for their skills.  If the kids realize that each task is designed to really help them, not just take up time, these students will work harder.  Whatever the subject, the bulk of the lesson for these students should focus on just one or two skills at a time.  However, a small portion of your time (perhaps 25%) should allow students to work on tasks that require using several skills, techniques or strategies.

Reading: Try to get a sense of what holds this group back.  Is it decoding words?  Or do students look at the first few letters and guess?  You may have to break this group into 2 camps to address each type of need.  The other group can read independently or complete skills sheets while you work with students.  If you want to teach whole-class, have students practice sight words, simple Readers’ Theater scripts, or word families.  May I also suggest the wonderful Little Critter reading series of workbooks?  They are pure magic at this level.

wRiting: These students probably need to practice with basic word families and phonics skills.  They also need lots of practice with writing complete sentences.  I also find that children at this level can benefit from copying fluent but simple writing—they see the patterns and get a feel for the structure.  You can teach these children to write paragraphs or even five-paragraph essays, but you’ll need to scaffold every step.  I would have the class make one outline together, then have each student work from that.  Did I mention that there are Little Critter Writing workbooks, too?

‘Rithmetic: Basic facts!  These students must learn them.  Spend a good deal of time practicing basic facts in many ways—worksheets, copying, games, flash cards, Learning Wrap Ups, computer programs—anything that works.  These students also need lots of help with place value.  I find that sometimes, learning basic facts is a gateway to understanding place value.  As students gain more confidence writing and manipulating numbers, the place value creeps its way into their number sense and your lessons are better received.  My free software, Best Times Tables Practice EVER! and Best Addition Practice EVER! are great for this level because you can scaffold learning.  Start with easy facts and work your way up.

This series on Professional Learning Communities Best Practices is made possible by Valerie, Donina, Bethany and Heather … an amazing third grade team!

Posted in Professional Learning Communities by Corey Green @ Nov 8, 2011