Category Archives: Elementary


Recently I read a New Yorker article about Brian Greene’s multimedia project, which paid tribute to some of Albert Einstein’s discoveries. It was launched on the centennial celebration of his general theory of relativity. Brian Greene is one of the more famous string theorists due to the popularity of his books which have included Fabric of the Cosmos and The Elegant Universe among others. He is a brilliant physicist and mathematician. In the article the author relates a story about Greene being set to the task of figuring out how many inches it is from here to the Andromeda galaxy by his father… when he was five. Not typical five-year-old work. Which then segues into a “consolation” for mathphobics that even Greene struggles to comprehend the homework assigned to his children in third and fifth grade.

“It’s all about strategies—‘Come up with a strategy’— and my kids are, like, ‘I don’t have a strategy, I just know it.’” Really? He has time for infinity, but can’t seem to piece together strategies for how students can learn to work with numbers? Continue reading

Positive Behavior Supports

This year my district adopted Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS), so our teachers got several days of training. In August I attended an unpaid PD day, mostly as a show of support for my new principal. (Remember my article last year “TPEP Is Killing My Principal”? He resigned in the spring. He’s now working for a small private school—and looking a lot more relaxed.) We had a second day of training right before school started and a third in September.

The feds recommend PBIS on their site ( One goal of the Department of Education is to decrease expulsions and suspensions. After all, students who are out of school for discipline issues are not likely to make academic gains while they are gone.

On one hand, PBIS focuses on teaching and modeling correct behaviors and offering tons of positive support. On the other, it mirrors RTI in that it helps schools identify Tier I, II, and III level behavior and the types of interventions appropriate at each level.

My class helped make videos of how to behave on the playground, in line, and even at the sinks outside the bathrooms. They love watching themselves show off how to do things right! Our school now has common expectations for the halls, lunchroom, recess, cafeteria—with the entire staff is using the same language, from the four expectations to the numbered noise levels.



Unfortunately, this year we are struggling with a number of Tier III students. So far PBIS isn’t a magic solution for those students.

Our principal, counselor, and interventionist are dealing with emergencies all day, every day. Experienced, seasoned teachers are strained and strung out. Teachers that last year I encouraged to go out for National Boards are equally strained and strung out. As much as we want to fix everything immediately, it’s impossible to effect big, systemic changes overnight.

Under PBIS, my classroom is both a time-out space for students to write reflection sheets, and it’s a haven for emergency evacuations. Late in September, while I was working with my math group, I looked up and realized there was a bunch of “littles” in my room. The dozen second graders had entered so quietly I hadn’t noticed! They were sitting crossed legged in the front of the classroom, hidden by the big fifth grader desks. Their teacher had sent them to my room for safety.

I peeked my head out the door. Three administrators stood there, observing one small student. The administrators said it wasn’t safe to bring my class through the hall to lunch. I had to find another solution, for them and for the second graders suddenly in my care.

How can we solve the problem at our school? We’ve met with district administration and our union president. Multiple district administrators have spent extended time at our building. We’ve received extra support in terms of additional trained personnel. We are working on problem-solving every way we can.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to do small things that might make appreciable differences.

I have one little guy who is a frequent flyer in my classroom. Call him Greg. He comes in often to fill out a Time to Reflect sheet. He’s not very cooperative. He’ll knock over a chair or make rude noises.

But I saw him in the office with an ice pack a couple weeks ago or so. I said, “Oh, honey, what happened?” He told me he hurt his eye. I said I was so sorry and gave him a hug. He melted into me. The principal gave me a surprised look—that was not his normal interaction with adults. But she said, “Good for you, Jan.”

A few days later I saw him in the office again. I said, “Hey, Greg, how’s it going?” It turns out he’d earned a reward and was in the office to collect. I told him how proud I was of him and gave him another hug. He clung to me again.

Now whenever I have a few extra minutes I stop by Greg’s classroom. I kneel by his chair. I ask him to read to me or show me what he’s writing. (His teacher is delighted that I’m giving him this extra support—I did check!)

This week when I said, “See you later,” Greg said, “No.” Surprised, I asked if he didn’t want me to come by any more. It turns out he didn’t want me to leave.

Ok, Greg is not a Tier III kid. He’s a Tier II. But he’s the one hard-to-manage kid who’s frequented my classroom. And if I can be one more adult building one more positive relationship with one more kid in my school, it can’t hurt.

And I also bring brownies for the staff room.


Yes, Recess Does Matter

As Seattle teachers are engaged in their first strike since the 1980s, one sticking point has been the amount of time the district wants devoted to recess (hint: it’s less, not more).

If you make the mistake that I’ve made and scrolled down to read the “comments” under some of the new reporting of the strike, you’ll see the typical union- and teacher-bashing, and of course, an utter lack of civil discourse or respect for divergent points of view. You’ll also see that a few commenters hone in on the idea of recess: some brand it as an add-on the union penciled in to maintain the guise that they “care about kids,” while others agree that recess is but frivolous play time…a lost opportunity to force more learnin’ into ’em.

Spend a morning in a typical elementary classroom and you’ll start to understand that recess is far from frivolous play time. If the quivering energy of a roomful of seven-year-olds could be bottled and sold, we’d never need to drill a drop of oil again.

Yet, the “play time” that recess provides is not just about getting energy out so that the kids can focus. It’s also not just about granting the teacher the rare opportunity to sit down, return parent phone calls or emails, or (if they’re bold enough) sprint to the restroom.

Continue reading

Hiring a Teacher

Concept illustration of hiring the best candidate. The graphic shows company making a choice of the person with right skills for the job among many candidates

By Tom White

Last week I was involved with the screening, interviewing and hiring of a new teacher in our building. It was an involved process, consuming most of three days. Along the way, I learned a few things about our profession.

First of all, accurate, unbiased information about candidates is hard to come by. We basically used four sources of information during the screening process: work history, letters of recommendation, confidential reference forms and answers to five teaching-related questions. Work history is useful in determining whether or not the candidate is experienced at the given grade level, which is important. Letters of recommendation were strange; in fact, after a while they all seemed to say the same thing. At some point it occurred to me that these were letters written by close associates or colleagues on behalf of someone who assumes the writer has something positive to say about them. Which is exactly what they are. Since they all say essentially the same thing, they aren’t very useful in screening applicants. More useful are the confidential references. In fact, a surprising number of references were written by the same authors of the letters of recommendation. And a surprising number of them were completely contradictory. Suffice to say that reference forms were more useful than the letters. And then there were the answers to those questions. They were useful in weeding out those applicants who either weren’t paying attention during their college courses or haven’t figured out how to use Google.

At the end of the day, we relied mostly on experience and confidential references.

The second thing I learned was that we as a system have long ways to go in terms of bringing diversity to the profession. My school is extremely diverse; whites account for about 40% of student population and a sizable amount of that 40% comes from Eastern Europe. Yet every single interview candidate was a middle-aged white woman. I’m not sure how to change the situation. Do we need to attract more diversity into teaching programs? Colleges in general? Who knows. But I do now this: we aren’t going to address the diversity issue during the hiring process. At that point, the hiring team simply needs to select the best teacher available.

Finally, I learned that when it comes to getting a teaching job, it doesn’t matter where you went to college. Actually it does, but not in the way most people think. I’ve only worked in education, but I’m under the impression that in many fields, going to a prestigious college results in a head start in your career. But I’m not sure we even checked the names of the colleges these people attended. Most of them, I assume, did what most of us did, attending the best state college they could afford. There were a few, however, who were able to highlight the fact that they worked with a diverse population while student teaching. That’s important, especially at a school like mine. If I were to offer advice to anyone looking for a teaching college, I would suggest finding a solid school located in an inner city; someplace like Cal State Dominguez Hills, for example. It’s a great little school located just south of Compton. Teachers coming out of that school are pretty well prepared to teach anywhere.

Hiring that teacher was a lot of work. Important work. But we pulled it off. We ended up hiring an awesome teacher who’ll be working right next door to me.

For English Language Learners, Intentional Collaboration is Key

Tamar Krames

Guest blogger Tamar Krames is a NBCT in English as a New Language, a certified GLAD trainer, and an ELL instructional coach currently working with OSPI. Prior to her work at OSPI, Tamar worked as a district GLAD trainer and coach, taught ELL classes and co-taught sheltered ELL content classes. 

I recently sat at a table in a windowless conference room with a 3rd grade team of teachers. As you might expect, the table was covered with grade-level ELA curriculum materials, open laptops, and copies of Common Core Standards. Far less common were the open and highlighted English Language Proficiency Standards (ELP), Tier 2 vocabulary lists, and the laminated pictures piled on the table. Two teachers were pulling up engaging image files related to an upcoming unit on their personal tablets and one was searching her phone for affixes and Latin roots to support their vocabulary mini-lesson. While the driving force of the co-planning session was ELA content and standards, addressing the profound language needs of their dynamic students was inspired. This is it, I thought, this is what best practice for ELLs looks like. These teachers were clearly committed to their craft and to their multilingual students. But what made that collaborative moment so powerful was the shared focus of the whole building to best meet the needs of their particular student body. The teachers had common understanding of second language acquisition and ELP standards because a team of teachers had requested ELL training for the whole staff. The planning session had the full support of the building’s leadership. Collaboration was not happening on the fly. It was intentional and deliberately supported.

As a traveling ELL instructional coach, I visit diverse school communities across WA State. The geographic context and demographic mix varies greatly. One school community is comprised of Spanish-speaking migrant families living in a small town surrounded by orchards and mountains. Another school has no clear ethnic majority, the students speaking 15 different languages in one urban classroom. Regardless of setting, I walk into my first building visits with one central question; What might best practice for ELLs look like in this unique school community? I ask this question to school leadership right off the bat.

More often than not, the answer to this question disappoints me. Consistently the first answer points to a single focal point. “ We are so lucky to have a wonderful ELL teacher named A” or “ We just purchased this amazing online language program called B”, or “ our ELL Para has attended a training called C!”. Clearly this singular view of best practice begs the question – What happens when A, B, or C leaves the building?

As far as I can tell, there is no right answer to this question of best practice for ELLs. The learning needs of multilingual students are complex and always changing. A linguistics professor once said to my class, “ if you remember one thing about second language acquisition, remember this – language acquisition is without fail developmental”. For teachers this means that the ELLs support structures (scaffolding) must change and flex as their students’ English proficiency and content mastery develops. On top of that, the rate at which ELLs develop proficiency and mastery varies drastically in relation to a seemingly endless set of factors (literacy in first language, status of first language in the dominant culture, educational background, poverty, learning disabilities, access to quality instruction…)

If you need further proof of the complex and ever-changing learning needs of ELLs, try navigating though the English Language Proficiency (ELP) standards (An amazingly thorough matrix that outlines language development by grade level in relation to common core standards). Best practice for ELLs is truly a moving target as students trudge through the stages of second language development and academic literacy at their own unique pace.

More than a “right” answer to this question of best practice for ELLs, what I hope to hear is a plural answer that points to shared ownership instead of pointing towards one program or person. Whatever the site-based vision for ELL support entails, it must involve intentional and ongoing collaborative structures. Collaborative structure is different from collaboration as it is proactive and systematic – it implies a deeper commitment than amazing content teacher, X, that collaborates with one-of-a-kind ELL specialist, Y. Intentional collaborative structures answer questions such as, How and when do counselors, administrators, content teachers and ELL specialists work together to best schedule ELLs according to their developing proficiency level? How and when do content teachers investigate and integrate ELP standards into their grade-level planning? If the ELL specialist is ‘pushing in’ to core instruction – how and when do teachers learn about, experiment with, and reflect on co-teaching models?

Ultimately, the goal of any ELL program model is to expedite the academic English language/ literacy development of multilingual students so that they can meet grade-level standards and breeze through any gatekeepers they encounter on their path towards earning a diploma. Supporting ELLs through the K-12 system is not about finding the right teacher, program, or PD session. It is about shared ownership and commitment to refining best-practice, uniquely designed for each community, together.


The above drawing is an original piece done by Tamar Krames.

Three Things I learned About the SBA

downloadBy Tom

Last week my fourth graders took the Smarter Balanced Assessment, better known as “The SBA” or in some circles as “The S-BAC.” This was their – and my – second year with this test, although last year didn’t really count, since no one knew what they were doing and the scores didn’t matter. Now they do. Always the learner, and always the minimalist, I’ve condensed my reflections to three. So here they are; three things I learned about the SBA:

First of all, not everyone hates standardized tests. Or more accurately, not everyone hates this standardized test. And by not everyone, I mean my students. My students didn’t spend a lot of time listening to the “opt-out” movement, and neither did their parents, so for them the test was simply another hard thing we do at school. Other than running them through the training test and the practice test, I didn’t build the test up too much. No one puked, no one cried and none of them lost any sleep. After each of the five sessions, we had a brief discussion about how they felt and surprisingly, most of them actually enjoyed themselves. In fact, 25 of my 30 kids “had fun” during the first session. The number dropped to twenty after the last session, but still; it was hardly the child abuse that some teachers and parents report.

I do have some questions about the performance tasks, especially the math performance task. In the fourth grade SBA, there’s a math section and a literacy section. Within each section, there’s a Computer Adaptive Testing (CAT) and a Performance Task. The CAT is designed to continuously adjust the level of rigor within each student’s test based on their answers to each question. The test gets harder or easier based on how well they answer the questions. The Performance Task is not adaptive. In the literacy section, it consists of reading two articles about a specific subject (ours were about spiders and insects) and answering several extended-response questions followed by a writing prompt. The questions and the prompts, however, were not uniform. Some kids had more questions than others and it appeared that they were randomly assigned to an argumentative, informative or narrative prompt. That seemed a little weird at first, but I guess it makes sense to be ready for each of the three genres. The math Performance Task seemed – at least to me – like it varied widely in terms of the level of rigor. Some kids appeared to have much more difficult questions than other kids, which left my colleagues and me wondering why they didn’t simply give the same questions to each student. It will be interesting to see the scores.

Those questions notwithstanding, I honestly believe this is a good test. Here’s why: The Common Core is a solid set of standards that make sense. They’re well-articulated up and down the grade bands and – at least for now – they’ve been adopted by nearly every state. They might not be perfect (yet) but they’re certainly better than anything I’ve seen in the 31 years I’ve been teaching. So the standards are solid, and the SBA –from what I’ve seen – is well-aligned to the standards. Virtually every standard I taught this year was reflected on the test. I think that in very near future we’ll get a little more accurate aligning the level of rigor in our materials and instruction with that of the test and when that happens, I truly believe things will really pick up in our education system. I really do.

Please join the conversation. But do so respectfully. Testing is a charged topic and it’s easy to slip into a negative, nonproductive rant. But we’re teachers. We know how to discuss. We know to teach people to discuss! Let’s do it correctly.

Some Thoughts on Opting out

fwy110405 019By Tom

Today was the day when “The Cart” came rolling in. That’s when testing becomes real in my school. The cart full of Chromebooks gets wheeled into your room; the day before your student start with the SBAC training test, and a week before they take the real thing. And as far as I know, every one of my fourth graders will be taking the test. No one’s opting out.

And I’m glad. Continue reading

How SBA Testing Affects Elementary Students

Our school has been doing SBA testing for over a week now. Here are just some of the things I’ve learned about how elementary students are affected by the SBA.

ONE: SBA affects how much work I can assign in my classroom.

As soon as my students returned from spring break, I asked them to pull out their assignment calendar. I asked them to record the due dates for the rest of the school year. There were the standard reading assignments for the trimester. But there were no major projects. No CBA, no science fair, no research project, no big writing project.

The kids didn’t complain, but they were curious. Why?

Because testing is the big project from now to the end of the year.

These tests exhaust the kids. I can’t load on some other major project and expect them to do well—either on the testing or on the project.

It wasn’t always this way. Not many years ago I did big projects right until the last week of school. (I drove the district tech director crazy insisting he keep the online grading system open right up until the last day of school!)

Not any more.

TWO: SBA affects my team.

Four of us teach math at the same time, but we don’t test on the same days. We have to cancel math on all the days that one of us have an SBA scheduled. We are losing about three weeks of math.

THREE: SBA affects the whole school.

For the entire testing period, all the computer labs in the school are reserved for testing use only. No classroom use of labs. For weeks.

FOUR: Elementary students are not proficient typists.

One third grade girl worked diligently all day on her first test. She finally stopped—paused—at the end of the first day. She had finished questions 1-8. There were 43 questions on the test.

FIVE: Elementary students have limited attention spans.

One fourth grade boy, after an hour and a half of hard work, simply gave up. He tipped back in his chair, looked straight up at the ceiling, and started randomly pressing keys. From what his teacher said, it’s not a matter of him not caring about school or grades or doing well. He just wanted the endless nightmare experience to be over.

SIX: Elementary students are impulsive.

You can give them directions at the beginning of the test. You can say, “This is a two-day test so DON’T hit end when you stop your work at the end of the day today. Hit pause.” You can emphasize and explain the directions. But at the end of the day, there will still be kids who hit end. They aren’t going to stop to think. They aren’t going to stop to ask. In their little kid minds, that’s what makes sense.

Of course, as far as the SBA goes, they are now locked out of any review of what they did the first day. They can’t even go back and look at the article they were reading in order to get information they need to help answer questions or to do the required writing on day two.

They cannot get unlocked.

And there is nothing anyone can do. Their teacher can’t unlock it. The administrator can’t unlock it.

One quick, thoughtless motion by a child hobbles their second day of testing. Because, oh yes, they still have to take the second day of the test.

SEVEN: Has anyone noticed that elementary students don’t process the written word as well on the computer screen as they do on paper?

And haven’t you found that to be true in your own life? I have. I can proofread a paper on the computer multiple times and think I’ve found every mistake. Then I hit print. The moment the paper comes out of the machine, I see errors I missed on the monitor.

This weekend my husband and I hosted a young couple in our home from China. Yuhao has an MA in computer engineering, and Victor is at UW doing research for a PhD in business administration.

We asked them what testing was like in China. Victor said they were tested on paper. Less important tests were given on cheap paper. Important tests were administered on very fine paper. He said he always did better work on the better paper.

I know I used to buy very high quality writing paper for my class for final draft written work (back before we did almost all final drafts on computers). My students put much more effort into making their work the best quality they could produce when the paper itself was beautiful.


Make the elementary SBA tests shorter. No day’s test should run more than one hour for an elementary student.

Go back to paper and pencil tests for elementary students.

Make Fun A Top Priority

The morning of the state science fair, I asked all the students gathered in my room what they had learned from their projects. They told me lots of specific details about their individual projects, from the behavior of worms to how difficult it is to make cheese. I asked what they learned about the scientific process. They talked about problems they had controlling variables and how they learned to write better conclusions.

Then I asked how many thought science was fun? Hands shot up all over the room. I threw my fist in the air and announced, “I won!”

After we got back from the fair, we debriefed. I passed out the class’s ribbons and awards. We had lots of second place ribbons, some third place, six first place trophies for “Best in Category,” and two Special Awards. As a team, for our first time at the fair, we felt we’d done a pretty good job.

I reminded my students, “Look how well you did. Not bad when you consider my number one priority for your science fair project was that you have fun.”

One boy quickly added, “But you also set really high standards.”

I said, “Ok, that was my number two priority. But my number one priority was that you have fun.”

A week or two earlier a parent had come in and commented on how her child hadn’t chosen a very important topic. I said I didn’t really care. As long as the student found it interesting and was doing a good job of following the scientific process, it was fine with me.

As I told that mother, elementary school is about getting them engaged. It’s about building positive attitudes. It’s not just about making them learn—it’s about making them want to learn.

If I can make them enjoy science—and math and reading and social studies and writing and everything else I teach them—they will go on to middle school and high school and want learn those subjects more deeply.

If I don’t build the positive attitudes now, then when they continue in those subjects in middle and high school, their secondary teachers will be fighting such an uphill battle.

The truth is, I have a really good researcher backing up my claim that building positive attitudes in elementary school can—believe it or not—be even MORE important than being the most highly skilled teacher in the field.

Benjamin S. Bloom, the educational guru who developed Bloom’s Taxonomy, led a team of researchers who worked with immensely talented young people in six fields of endeavor. They published their findings in a hefty book called Developing Talent in Young People.

Here, briefly paraphrased, is how the researchers described the initial teachers of these extraordinarily successful individuals.

At this stage the best teachers are described as being good with children and someone the children are comfortable with. They are supportive, warm, loving, caring, nurturing. They give positive support and rewards like stars and stickers and smiling faces on papers. They are a “second mother.”

They are not necessarily leaders in the field. They don’t necessarily have the highest skills themselves. Their gift is they make the field of study enjoyable for the children. They can make beginning lessons seem like fun.

If you want to read the full summary/review of the book, go to my Teacher Resources page and look under the Education section.

Somehow, in the race toward rigor, the idea that we need to make learning enjoyable seems to be slipping off center stage. I object. At the elementary level, I believe the two goals are equally important.

So I know it’s testing season, but go ahead—this spring concentrate on making learning fun!

You Can Lead a Child to Testing, But You Can’t MAKE Him Try

There’s a lot of chatter in the lunchroom lately about test scores and pay, and how teachers will want to change positions if their pay is tied to test scores. “No one will want to teach third, fourth, or fifth.” “I’ll want to switch to second grade.”

Then I hear, “At least you won’t have to worry, Jan. You teach gifted kids. All your kids pass all the tests every year.”

It’s true, most of my highly capable students have the ability to pass most of the tests that are thrown at them. Having the ability to do well doesn’t necessarily mean that they will perform at that level.

Last week I asked my students, “How many of you want to go into computer programming when you grow up?” Hands shot up around the room. I said, “You need to be good at writing.” One boy jerked his hand back down as fast as he had originally thrust it up.

Honestly, what conceivable motivation can I offer that boy? He’s dreamed of working in the computer industry; I’m sure he’s pictured himself spending his adult life designing video games and having a job that’s more play than work. But he is willing to give up his dream—in a heartbeat—in order to avoid the dread task of writing.

Over the years I’ve had several students who are stubbornly resistant to writing. They may start out strong on a writing piece with a great initial idea but then peter out fast and dribble down to nothing.

Here are the kinds of help I can give my reluctant writers in class:

I can give them the structure and encouragement they need throughout the writing process. “You need to develop those ideas.” “Don’t stop there, I want to hear more.” “Wow, that’s great. What happens next?”

But, oh, how they balk at doing more than a single draft. Writing anything once is painful enough. Making changes and writing it again? Pure torture! “You need to read it aloud now. Does it make sense?” “Can you use stronger verbs, more precise words, or some great figurative language?”

Finally, finally, they are supposed to edit for conventions. They are long past tired of the piece by now. They just want to be done, so every single time we get to the editing stage in class projects, I give a pep talk to the class about how important editing is. “I know it’s hard. Conventions weren’t invented to make it easier for the writer—they were all invented to make life easier for the reader.”

All the help works in the classroom where I can ride herd on all my little mavericks. Even my reluctant writers can produce excellent, quality work when they get the support they need.

Here are the kinds of help I can give those writers during testing:

On the day of the ELA performance task, all my students will go in knowing what they need to do and how to do it. They will walk in knowing they need to be meticulous and thorough. It’s nothing new. We’ve practiced those skills all year.

I can guarantee my reluctant writers will be the first ones done with the test. I can picture the student a couple of years ago who popped up an hour or more before anybody else. “I’m finished!”

I asked him (through gritted teeth), “Are you sure you’re done?”

Big grin. “Yes!”

“Did you answer every question?”


Short of cheating, I can’t do anything more. I can’t say, “It’s not a race. You need to go back and read your piece and see if you can develop your ideas more thoroughly. Are your ideas organized well? Can you express your ideas better? Now go back, sit down, and do a proper job.”

For most of my students, that speech would be enough to get a significant improvement out of them. And if I could give them a couple of pep talks along the way—without looking at their writing at all—they would produce the kind of writing they are fully capable of creating.

I’m not allowed to do that.

Yet some people want my pay to be based on how well my students test.

My point? A test is a measure not just of academics but of motivation. If it turns out my pay is going to be based on how well my students do on the SBA, then I want to be able to properly motivate my students during the test.