Enriching Reading in Secondary Classes Via Selected Non-Fiction Texts

Image result for images of kids reading black and white The Common Core has rightfully taken a good deal of heat. Rushed implementation. Invalid exams. Student scores tied to teacher evaluations.  Families and schools soon showed signs of test-fatigue.  Eventually, public criticism led to test boycotts and demands for reform.

The Common Core isn’t all bad, though. English teachers have always loved close reading and supported argument.   And though initially, my literary heart broke when I was told that, by senior year, seventy percent of students’ reading would be non-fiction, I soon discovered integrating informational texts into curriculum maps could be a win-win.

My Confessions

Like many secondary English teachers, after seeing Common Core prototypes, I started out using non-fiction as test-prep. If kids were going to have to read about science and social studies on state exams, and if I would be rated on their performance, then everyone would benefit from a little structured practice. As a trusted colleague put it: “You wouldn’t take the road test without practicing a three-point turn and parallel parking.”  I found articles that seemed interesting and wrote multiple choice questions and created writing prompts to parallel our ever evolving state tests.

And for what it was worth, this worked. Reading about the science of climate change did sharpen comprehension skills. Practice answering multiple choice questions did make kids feel more confident. Timed writing rehearsal promoted efficient test taking. Scores improved.

But stand-alone test prep ate up too much class time. Random readings—as interesting as they might be—weren’t doing much to help struggling scholars crack the historical code in Act 1 of The Crucible or to challenge high fliers to test the science in Jack London’s To Build a Fire.

There Are Many Advantages

Integrating meaningful non-fiction into secondary English classes not only improves test scores and strengthen skills, but enriches the core reading experience for all kids. The key word here is meaningful. Texts have to contribute to an enriched reading experience. Non-fiction must correspond to core readings.  Thoughtfully chosen pre-reading texts, build a base of prior knowledge that supports all readers. Through informational texts, kids can dig into the setting of a literary text. They can experience the science of the conflict between man and nature.  They can evaluate historical or scientific accuracy. Post reading texts can provide information to confirm or refute messages in literary works, promoting critical evaluation.  Incidentally, prior knowledge and critical evaluation also contribute to higher reading comprehension scores on standardized tests.  You can use these texts as a vehicle for differentiation.  You can use these non-fiction readings as mentor texts, too.

Where to Find Informational Texts

Finding sound texts that actually go with the core reading in your classroom means you have to be an avid reader. Considering the amount of time teaching English demands, this is no small task. But good sources for non-fiction might already be on your nightstand or doorstep.

  •  Image result for images of the new york times  The New York Times—Contrary to popular belief, the Times isn’t beyond most secondary students. The reading level in the NYT has been estimated at seventh grade. Kids can learn to apply contextual cues to puzzle out unfamiliar vocabulary.  The Times features science articles, opinion pieces, human interest, travel, book reviews as well as current events.  If you search the archives, there is almost always something you can use with any core literary text.
  •    Image result for images of sports illustrated covers   Sports Illustrated—It may sound crazy, but the heroes in sports and the heroes in literature frequently share character traits: resilience, determination, endurance. The language used in sports reporting is colorful and engaging. Kids get reading experience with varied text structures.
  • Image result for images of national geographic  National Geographic (for both kids and adults)– NG can take kids to faraway places that can coincide with settings in literary texts. Brilliant photos can bring these places to life.
  •  Image result for images of historic documents  Historical documents—Social Studies teachers use primary source historical documents all the time. English teachers not so much. For literary texts centered on historical events, documents can be a link to the past.
  •  Image result for images of autobiography books  Autobiographies—Personal accounts often correspond to fictionalized stories. Students can extract messages about people/characters who have found ways to leave a  mark on their worlds.
  • Image result for images of science booksExcerpts from books in school and public libraries–Use these resources to fill in the blanks about science, history, economics, law.

Image result for images of kids reading black and whiteWhat constitutes “literature” continues to evolve. We have an obligation to prepare kids for life beyond tests, beyond our classrooms. Academic success lies in curiosity, in critical thinking, in self direction. Making informational readings organic elements of the secondary English class experience supports all of these.




Making Kids Feel Safe in An Uncertain World

Image result for images of the doomsday clock  Scientists who know about such things announced the “Doomsday Clock” has been advanced thirty seconds closer to midnight, the metaphorical moment of annihilation, leaving humans two minutes to tend to potential self-destruction. Global nuclear gamesmanship and climate change joined forces, prompting the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to issue this dire warning.   Image result for images of the doomsday clock


Even to adults, that news is pretty terrifying.

But bombs and meteorological disaster are not the only bad news for mankind.  Every day, anchors deliver grim accounts of violence, dishonesty, prejudice, inequality, poverty, disease.

Make no mistake: our kids do overhear sound bytes about school shootings, ICE raids and terrorist attacks. Screens transport them into images of mass destruction: super storms, wild fires, mud slides, mushroom clouds.


Image result for images of fear        2018 is a tough time to be a child.       Image result for images of fear


So how can teachers make kids feel safe when the world around them is so uncertain?

1. Create a community

It is the most challenging element of teaching. We don’t learn how to do it in grad school.  Community evolves over time and is among the significant features of successful classrooms. In today’s world, where danger seems to loom perpetually, community is more important than ever.  Computers or administrators generate our class lists. Kids are brought together by external factors: ability, age, geography.  For better or worse, they come to us in tidy alphabetical order. Some of them already know one another. Some even show up disliking each other. It is up to us to create a community of learners. Within the context of daily instruction, we have to find ways to grow trust, inspire tolerance, encourage mutual esteem. Predictability, fairness, structure and respect define safe classrooms. Kids have to feel safe with us and with one another to able be ask questions, to take the academic risks essential for progress and success. They have to learn to trust us and to trust each other. When we refuse to accept stereotypes, when we promote kindness, we are building community and being part of something bigger than themselves where they feel valued makes kids feel safe, even if it is only for 45 minutes at a time.

2.  Practice safety

Fire drills. Lock-down drills. Weather drills. Unwelcome interruptions in what we want to accomplish each day. No one wants to think about worst case scenarios, but we have to have a plan.  Practicing safety means mastering procedures, who to call, where to go, what to do. Adults may think that drills scare kids, but knowing that their teachers are in control is reassuring. And we have to practice safety every day, even when there are no alarms going off.

3. Use your school’s resources

Counselors, social workers, psychologists are all school professionals trained to support kids in times of stress and anxiety.  They have the skills to provide strategies to kids who fear deportation or random violence.  They provide teachers with a means to this end as well. They have ways of interacting with kids that mere mortal teachers don’t. They can guide kids to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes without being preachy or condescending. Call on their expertise.

4. Listen to kids’ fears

Sometimes kids just have to talk and know someone hears them.  When horrifying things occur, kids need to debrief and speaking out at home may not be an option.  They just want to articulate what scares them. When so many other demands are competing for our attention, finding time to simply listen is challenging, but to a child afraid that his parents might be on a deportation hit list, a teacher’s ear can be a lifeline. If a child has chosen you to hear her fears, be present.

5. Empower students

Finally, we have to find ways to infuse control into kids’ daily lives. Fear is most potent when we feel helpless. The world around kids today is ripe with dangers too big for them to manage, problems they cannot solve. Finding ways to empower kids puts them in the drivers’ seats.  Kids can’t prevent leaders from taunting one another with the nuclear button, but providing some choice within the learning community gives kids a sense of control within their own lives. Having a say in what happens to them in school can make kids feel temporarily safe.

Teachers in high risk districts have known this all along: the world beyond the classroom can be a scary place.  Information overload now brings a host of terrors into everyday life. Before our kids can absorb the wonderful lessons we labor to create for them, they have to feel safe enough to learn.

Image result for images of community


Teachers Matter

Image result for education images “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of education.”  

Most people would readily agree: Education matters. Schools matter.  Kids matter. Teachers matter.

And when we achieve Dr. King’s goal for education, it follows that people matter.  Humankind–regardless of race, religion, national origin, gender or sexual identity–matters.

Even to the mathematically challenged like me, this equation seems simple enough.

Then we see this on the evening news: a teacher is handcuffed for questioning administrative salary increases.  We get the message in this image: teachers do not matter. That Louisiana English teacher, Deysha Hargrave, is right; we should all be appalled.   Teachers in her district have not had a pay raise in ten years. Ten years.

Teachers in many parts of the country say that in  order to do what they do, they must secure a second job, a part-time gig, to supplement their teacher salaries. Schools are often so poorly funded that these same teachers must dig deep into their pockets for basic classroom supplies.

But teachers matter? Education matters? Kids matter? Humankind matters?

How can we expect the best and brightest to enter a profession that requires advanced degrees but doesn’t pay enough to cover transportation, rent and food? If we aren’t interested in the quality of candidates attracted to teaching, how can we say education matters? How can we continue to say kids matter?

Our culture values education for the tangible returns we can recoup from our investments.  Certainly schooling provides a means to an economic end. Diplomas and degrees are employment requirements. There can be no denying the statistical correlation between schooling and earning.  Why don’t we apply this principle to the people we entrust with our most precious possessions, our kids?

Our kids matter. We want them to excel academically. We want them feel safe and confident. Teachers make these things happen. Therefore, teachers do matter.

And beyond individual classrooms, the world continues to shrink. Global issues threaten to morph into local challenges: climate change, race relations, health care, food and energy production.  Will we have the intelligence and character to collaborate in the search for solutions? Teachers definitely matter.

Image result for education images As Dr. King asserts, education–true education– is so much more. Education is an ignited curiosity and thick questions that may not have concrete answers. Education is accepting that we are part of a world that is so much bigger than ourselves. Education is understanding value in humanity in all its shapes and forms.  It is education that will ultimately determine the fate of humankind.







But They Make it Look So Easy

Image result for images of pencils  When people are skilled, they make the things they are able to do look so easy.

My son in law solves complex computer mysteries with a few clicks of his mouse.  Olympic sprinters break speed records without breaking a sweat.  And Jerry and Sergio consistently–and seemingly effortlessly–serve up the best polenta and osso bucco this side of the Atlantic.

Their complete competence makes you think you can do what they do. Except that you really can’t.

They do their work with ease.  What don’t we see?  Years of practice, training, and experience come together seamlessly–and often, invisibly– for success.

Image result for images of pencils Take teaching. To the casual observer,  an accomplished teacher makes it look simple to wrangle twenty first graders to the carpet or to get middle school kids excited about the Age of Exploration or guide sophomores through the steps in a science lab. Students seem to shuttle from station to station independently. Group work is focused.  Hands are up and discussion is rich. It all looks, well, so easy.

Good teachers can make an outsider believe that this teaching business is a piece of cake.  Hell, a good teacher can make anyone think,”I can do this.”  Except that they really can’t.

Image result for images of pencils Classroom feng shui creates lanes for traffic to the trash basket, minimizing distractions, keeping kids focused on instruction.  There are high expectations for every learner and multiple routes toward achievement. Monitored group work is designed to promote discovery and fuel enthusiasm. Carefully crafted, differentiated lessons flow seamlessly into one another toward tangible culminations.  Students and their families get timely feedback on assignments.

And that is just the beginning of what goes into teaching. Every. Single. Day.

Image result for images of pencils So, even though I can dig deep for the computer skills to publish a blog, even though I can jog a 5K, even though I can whip up a pretty tasty grilled cheese, and even though the pros make their work in these fields look easy, I know I cannot do what they do.

Image result for images of teaching



First Year Teachers: Survival Tips

Nothing prepares for you for the first day of school. Everything you think you learned seems to be gone, sucked into a wild vortex of anxiety, energy and idealism. 

Image result for back to school images

When the ball drops signaling a fresh school year, a newly minted class of novice teachers will be behind the desk and whether spent with wide-eyed kindergartners or seniors chaffing to meet the “real world,” the first months of teaching can be like the mood swings of middle school. One day, you’re riding that perfect wave of elation, high on authentic discovery that took on a life of its own. The next day, you forgot to take attendance, tripped over the trash can and left your lunch on the kitchen counter.

A little advice…please?


1. Find a mentor.

This might be the single most important tip for first year teachers. Nobody flies solo during the first year. You need a go-to person who is willing to hold your hand, applaud your successes and have a supply of tissues available. A  good mentor can be your cultural GPS, routing you around predictable pitfalls and obstacles, leading you through meetings and paperwork.  You lower the likelihood you will drop out of the profession if you have a trusted mentor.  And if you are really lucky–as I was– you might even make a friend for life.

2. Pace yourself: put management first.

You have great ideas for sight words or the Age of Exploration, but you aren’t going to do it all on Day 1 or in the first month or even during your first year.  It is estimated that it requires five full years of experience before teachers get into the instructional zone. Most veterans agree: Open with management. Establishing predictable routines and explicitly modeling behavioral expectations will be worth the time invested. Creating a few, carefully thought-out ground rules early on means you will be more able to tackle fractions or the nervous system or The Crucible later.

3. Do not grandstand.

When asked about what not to do, experienced teachers warn against trying too hard to grab the spotlight. There is a fine line between showcasing your achievements–you want to be asked back so you can be a second year teacher–and showing off.  A certain amount of self-promotion is necessary for self-preservation. It is when first-year teachers forget they are members of a team of instructional professionals that they can wander into a danger zone.  Support is reciprocal; respect is mutual.  Self-aggrandizement gets ugly quickly, especially if it comes at someone else’s expense.

4. Communicate.

You expect to communicate with your students. You must also expect to communicate with their families. Keeping parents tactfully informed of their children’s progress in your class is a significant factor in first year teacher success. If parents feel comfortable with you, they are less likely to go over your head to your department chairman or building administrators.  You must also communicate with colleagues. Even though we are stars of our own daily classroom productions, schools function best when all involved share ideas and concerns.


5. Find ways to leave your classroom behind.

Finally–and for the idealistic newbie, this will be tough–you have to carve out non-teaching time in your life.  Outside interests, your family, your friends all play a vital role in your overall health. Teaching can be consuming and you need other activities to maintain a balance. For first year teachers, this is challenging as you try to juggle the seemingly endless demands of planning, collaborating, grading, committees, meetings. Having something specific scheduled for your weekend forces you to put down the red pen and close the plan book. It also helps you with perspective.


The first day. It is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.  With a little help from your friends, you can live to teach another day.  Image result for teacher images











Five Values That Distinguish Great Schools

Image result for images of schools

Make no mistake: money can buy the things that contribute to student achievement. It may be called the root of all evil, but schools need cold, hard cash. Funding teacher salaries, technology and facilities are  absolute necessities when creating a good school.

But what truly sets the great schools apart are the  human values that define them. 

1. Integrity.

Any organization functions best when all participants are held to high standards of personal honesty.  In great schools, integrity is woven into the fabric of every day interactions from the top down.  Reliable administrative transparency creates a climate for staff and students to do the right thing even when the right thing might be hard to do. Teachers model integrity with one another and with their classes.  Growing integrity–an abstract and often elusive value– is a respected process in every great school.

2. Safety

Physical safety is a given in all schools. Parents trust schools to care for their children and there can be no negotiating that responsibility. But great schools are places where students and staff feel safe to stretch their intellectual muscles, where all feel secure enough to take on challenges without a guarantee of success. Great schools daily demonstrate that success is defined by what is learned not by numerical assessment, and provide all participants with the requisite safety to take intellectual and instructional risks.

3. Personal Accountability

Reasonable school rules are necessary for both safety and for effective instruction.  Great schools create communities where individuals understand their roles as members of the whole and see beyond a list of “what not to do.” Great schools guide staff, families and students to be accountable to one another and to value behavioral expectations as part of that shared responsibility.  Students learn that to err is human, but they must accept responsibility when missteps inevitably happen. Content area aside, this might be the most practical lesson students learn in great schools.

4. Respect

Many of these values overlap and respect walks alongside integrity, safety and personal accountability. However, respect is a value earned and nurtured among the participants in great schools. Respect boils down to mutual admiration. In great schools, success is shared. There is no need for self-promotion because students, staff and families have pride in their collective accomplishments and in one another’s contributions to the whole. The idealism of the novice and the experience of the veteran aren’t competing for attention but rather equally lauded for the parts each will play in the effective, efficient outcome.

5. Compassion and Empathy

Finally, even with all of the above values in place, a school cannot be great without compassion and empathy. In every school, there are sad kids, hungry kids, sick kids, kids who, for whatever reason. exist on the periphery of the social constructs. Great school build cultures that support every member of the learning community.  Great schools inspire students to care about people, to walk in someone else’s shoes for a time, to use their talents and skills and interests in ways that will benefit the world at large.


Good schools can get kids to produce strong test scores and good schools can prepare students to apply to respected colleges and universities. Building a great school isn’t easy and the work never ends.  Great schools, however, make kids into life long learners who care about the people and the world around them.


Good Morning, Boys and Girls!

I cannot wait!

The Nothing Expert


In early 2016, I retired from teaching and consulting after working for 45 years, thirty as an elementary school teacher, and fifteen more as an educational consultant. I posted occasionally to The Nothing Expert, but I was not focused; I wrote about Everything and Nothing.

Perhaps I was afraid to write about education.

I’m not afraid anymore.

To warm up for my new focus on education, I wrote a list of my best days in schools.  When I say best, I mean the days you relive over and over and sit there smiling to yourself as you remember your pride, your absolute wonderfulness!

Take a minute, dear Reader, and remember one of your own wonderful work days. Savor it. Pleasure in it. Ahh!

To continue my pre-writing I made another list of my worst days in schools. When I say worst I mean the days you want to bury…

View original post 269 more words