Looking Back on the Year

IMG_1917Another school year has sped by and I am again looking “through the rear view mirror” at another journey in the classroom.  Although bumper to bumper end-of year parties, assemblies, and classroom textbook return may create a sizable jam, I find that building some reflection time into those last few classes is essential.

Here are five “fuel efficient” ways for teachers to assess how the year went and to make next year even better:

  • “Scale” Response: A simple classroom feedback scale is an excellent tool to help students communicate general feelings about their classroom experience. Soliciting anonymous student feedback about what was “too much,” “too little,” or “just enough” during the school year takes only a few minutes, but can provide invaluable insights for improving instruction.[1]  These are also easy to administer online with survey tools such as Google Forms.
  • “How-To” Pamphlet: At the end of the year, our students are the “experts” on being in our classes. Accordingly, I encourage students to share their expertise by making “pamphlets” to guide next year’s students through a successful year. A black sheet of paper folded into thirds with such headings as, “The Year in Summary,” “Tips for Success,” and “This Year’s Highlights” provides a terrific end-of-year wrap-up and a peer-supported welcome when school resumes in the fall.
  • Pre/Post Assessment Review: In my language arts class, at the beginning and end of each year, students take a pre-assessment and post-assessment in which they answer the same literature analysis questions.   At the end of the year, I distribute these assessments for their review (before teacher feedback/grades are shared). Challenging students to identify two or three specific areas of improvement on their own reinforces a sense of “ownership” of their learning. Moreover, encouraging students to share their observations provides a wonderful “wrap up” discussion about the year’s accomplishments, learning trends, and accomplishments.
  • Written Student Reflections: Student self-reflections are another meaningful way to collect information about whether “it was a good year.” They also provide insights about student understanding, readiness for additional challenge, and activities that students find particularly meaningful. Student reflection questions that yield meaningful feedback may include prompts such as: What challenged you the most this year? What about this class would you enjoy? What would you change about this class? If you could plan a lesson that would improve this class, what would it be? (I have sometimes found some wonderful, fresh ideas for instruction this way!)
  • Invite Parent Feedback: Keeping school-home communication avenues open throughout the year is essential for classroom teachers. In addition to the fact that strong family-school partnerships support student learning, children will sometimes share perspectives with their families at home that they do not express at school. At the end of the year, sending home a form for parent written reflections and suggestions is one way to invite summative feedback from parents. Also, a simple email or phone call to parents at the year’s end to celebrate their child’s success, provide suggestions for summer practice, and/or identify areas of strengths and challenge is a natural way to open dialogue that can potentially deepen a teacher’s understanding about the overall classroom experience.

[1] Dr. Richard Best modeled the “too much” “too little” “just enough” categories to collect feedback in his graduate class in Educational Leadership at National-Louis University.  This idea for collecting feedback to be helpful both when leading professional development sessions for colleagues and when teaching elementary students.

Content Knowledge: Let’s Hear it For the Underdog!

photo from Microsoft Word Clip Art



As educators, is our lamenting that there’s “too much content to teach and not enough time” drowning out our enthusiasm about the “stuff” of learning?  In the tug-of-war of professional priorities, do we too casually make content knowledge the underdog?

For elementary school teachers, professional development related to Common Core State Standards, assessment, differentiation and social-emotional learning is important for keeping up on best practices.  But how much time per year do we spend expanding and deepening our own knowledge about the content that we are teaching?  If we teach Social Studies, Reading, Science, or Mathematics, do we set aside time to expand our knowledge and explore topics of personal interest related to these subjects?  Do we regularly enjoy meaningful discussions and share resources with our colleagues about these topics?

As educators, when we make it a priority to pursue and share content knowledge among ourselves, we naturally convey to our students a sense of renewed excitement about the “stuff” we are teaching and learning.

So if we haven’t cheered for content knowledge lately, let’s do it together…

Hooray for the amazing pleasure of learning lots and lots of new things!


Spring Morning: Bringing Schools To Life


This morning was the first warm Monday that Chicago has experienced for a while — the sun was bright, and there was a high temperature of around 45 degrees.  As I stood at my crosswalk post, the sunshine revealed a crowd of diverse families and students entering the school doors, bringing the school to life again.  

How do we keep our schools alive?  Quite simply, school leadership can keep our schools healthy by building connections with the families who nourish them.  In fact, the following types of activities/practices offer a few ways that educators can bring families and schools together:

  • Welcome parents and family members to school and greet them as they come to the door. 
  • Schedule a rich variety of inclusive school events at different times throughout the year so that families with diverse schedules and interests will be able to attend and feel welcome. 
  • Routinely provide opportunities for parents to share their perspectives about the school and to better understand the needs and interests of families.  Such opportunities can range from one-to-one interactions, to coffees, town meetings, and surveys.
  • Engage with the community, understand its assets and struggles, and develop relationships with business owners, community leaders, and institutions. 
  • Take walks through the community, getting to know the surrounding neighborhood and its residents.
  • Understand the needs and preferences of families for communication avenues, so that school communications cross language and cultural barriers, and all families feel a part of the school community.  

As the weather turns warmer, it is a wonderful time for teachers and principals to look for new ways to step outside and open doors for the diverse families that are our schools.  Let’s keep it “spring” all year round.

Ubi Caritas


UntitledDuring these days of tight school budgets, schools must make it a priority to support and treasure programs in music and the visual arts. One important reason for this is that we find so many talented, inspiring teachers in the arts who fill the school experience with creativity, meaning, and joy. In fact, here’s a personal story …

I remember myself as an eighth grader. As one of six siblings, all of whom played the violin, I had grown up in Corning, New York with music and was also a serious student. So, when the conductor of the high school Choristers, Mr. Perry, led an information session for incoming freshmen, I asked him, “What should I do if I’d much rather sing in the Choristers, but I’ve been told I should take Latin instead?”

He quipped with a laugh, “That’s easy! Join Choristers!”

So, I did.

For me, singing in the high school chorus was an experience that brought joy as well as learning. We sang a wide variety of music, explored musical theory, practiced singing in multi-part harmony, and learned how to perform with dynamics and expression. Mr. Perry’s content knowledge was extensive, and his musicianship and high standards for excellence were captivating. His rehearsal room was always filled with laughter.

When I think of what makes a great teacher, I think of Mr. Perry who developed personal relationships with students and demonstrated time and again how with perseverance and practice, a cacophony could evolve into beautiful music. Mr. Perry was authentic and approachable—and the learning that took place in his rehearsal room was lasting and genuine.

In high school, when I followed Mr. Perry’s advice to “Join Choristers,” I found that true joy in learning came, not by thoughtlessly following a course set by others, but by following my dreams—a journey that led me to teaching. In the end, I never took a Latin class, but from Choristers my heart is filled with beautiful song lyrics that we sang together—in Latin.

A New Year’s Resolution for the Classroom

New Year

For us teachers, “New Year’s Day” offers a second chance to look ahead at all of the possibilities and make new resolutions. In addition to the luxury of celebrating the new year with a fresh start to the school year in August, we observe the January 1st New Year along with the rest of the country. Teachers are experts at ringing in the New Year, and have twice as many opportunities to be creative with New Year’s resolutions.

As part of my personal “second New Year’s celebration,” I resolve to enjoy more meals with friends and family at home by pulling out a few of the “tried and true” recipes. By cooking up lasagna, bisque, or a pie, I need not worry about the basic recipes, but can add a special twist or two to the old favorites and focus on listening to and enjoying the guests.

It’s time for a similar resolution in the classroom…

Teachers have an endless smorgasbord of “new dishes” out there to digest and absorb into the classrooms—new Common Core standards, new changes in curriculum, new instruction, new technology.  Of course effective teachers need to continually sample and master new curricula, keep up with the latest technology, and learn new instructional strategies. However, to maintain excellence, teachers also need to fully digest, taste, savor, and add new spice to the instruction being served.   We need to nourish our students with some “tried and true” menu items that improve over the years with reflection, experimentation, and modification.

So what can we do to provide a balanced menu in the classroom? Very simply—let’s find some truly great recipes for learning and prepare them more than once.

To welcome 2015, here’s a simple New Year’s Resolution for the classroom– “Do something old.” Choose a lesson or a unit that was taught before, and find a way to improve it by approaching it from a different angle, presenting it in a more engaging way through technology, enriching it with questions to promote high level thinking, focusing on an applicable state standard, or adapting instruction to meet the unique needs of a student.   Have fun. Be fulfilled.

Let’s resolve to teach something old, but not just again—Let’s teach it better.

Instruction vs. Holiday Shopping: What’s the “Wrap”?

A leading researcher in education, Robert Marzano, asserts that “identifying similarities and differences” is an effective strategy for deepening understanding.¹   The Venn Diagram is a wonderful graphic for comparing similarities and differences.  It also brings to light the undeniable relationship between holiday shopping and instruction.  If you’ve been doing a lot of both lately, you may have already noticed that they often get a similar “wrap”…

Steinmeyer Theresa TB 1


¹Marzano, R. J., Brown, J. L., & Association for Supervision and Curriculum, D. (2009). A Handbook for the Art and Science of Teaching. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Improving Education: Let’s Not Lose the Conversation

With the new Common Core, teachers are unpacking standards, adjusting instruction, incorporating technology, and sifting through new piles of educational stuff. But whether these resources are “gifts” or “distractions” depends upon whether teachers use them to spark or inhibit meaningful conversations.  In essence, teaching means understanding and responding to the needs of learners in our classrooms. We do this when we talk with the students.

In the 1967 Musical Film, Dr. Dolittle, an adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s classic series, Rex Harrison portrayed the eccentric doctor who could talk to animals.   He declared:

…It’s a fairy tale worthy of Hans Anderson and Grimm

A man who walks with the animals, talks with the animals

…And they could squeak and squawk and speak and talk to me!

As human beings, teachers and students certainly do not need magic to communicate. But, as Dr. Dolittle found, talking can bring about amazing discovery.

In fact, one day I talked with my fourth grade math students, and the conversation went like this:

Me: “So, what units did we use to measure length on this quiz?”

Students: “Centimeters!”

Me:  “So why would you write ‘5 cubic centimeters’ on your quiz to measure a line segment? How did you picture yourself doing this problem in your mind?”

Student Response: “I pictured myself taking my unit cube [a plastic one-by-one centimeter block] and counting how many cubes would fit on the line segment.

I had assumed that these were careless errors! Yet, by asking and listening to the students, I discovered the “little cube in their minds” that they were using to measure length. So, rather than tell them to slow down and check their work, I gave them what they truly needed–more “hands-on” practice with appropriate measuring tools and with using units to show what they measured — length, volume, or area.

Another conversation happened in my fifth grade Reading class. In order to develop research skills and creativity, my students were starting a project we call “REAL” time–“Read, Explore, and Apply knowledge about a subject that you Love.” (“REAL” time is inspired by the “Genius Hour,” which is an education initiative to increase engagement, motivation, and learning by setting aside time for students to research and develop “passion projects” on subjects of their choice.)

As we brainstormed research topics, some students struggled with the open-ended question—“If you could learn about anything, what would it be? What would it really be?”

Finally, after lots of talking, asking, and listening, the REAL topics started flowing. Movies, Alternative Energy Sources, Vikings, Cars, Baseball…

In fact, one morning the students were so engrossed in learning about the subjects they loved that I had to remind them, ”Kids, class time ended ten minutes ago! You really need to leave!”

Although the results can seem magical, unlike in Dr. Dolittle, there is no “fairy tale” process required for talking with students.   It is simple, natural, and essential for learning.  Data, technology, and assessments  can’t get us there.  Let’s accept the truth: To truly improve education, we need to recognize, nurture, and enrich the conversation inside our classrooms.

“What are you picturing in your mind?…Is there another way to solve this problem?… If you had a choice, what would you love to learn?”

We need to talk with the students. And we need to listen.

Doing Our Homework About Homework

slateAlthough there is some debate about the value of homework in elementary school, thoughtfully designed homework can support learning for our younger students.

In order to help ensure that the advantages from elementary school homework assignments out-weigh the hassles, here are ten “homework” questions to help teachers “come to class prepared” before assigning homework to students:

1.  How does this assignment support student learning?

2.  Are teachers, students and parents aware of the approximate time it should take for the student to finish this assignment, and is this time period appropriate for the grade level?

3.   Are the directions clear?

4.   Is there homework that other teachers are assigning?

5.  Do the students have a workable plan for what they should do if they struggle with the homework or have questions?

6. Can all of the students be reasonably expected to have the support and tools available at home to complete the homework successfully?

7.  Is the assignment meaningful and engaging for students?

8.  Do the students have a system to record assignments, and a clear procedure for correcting assignments/turning them in to the teacher for feedback, and do any students need extra support with this system?

9.  Are there major extracurricular events are happening in the school or surrounding community that may impact homework time/student motivation?

10.  When assigning homework and determining class procedures for student accountability, have the daily realities and challenges of family life been considered?

-Patricia Steinmeyer

At the Copy Machine


            I have heard that the true nature of a person reveals itself when “no one is looking.” There is no truer place where “no one is looking” than the elementary school copy machine.

            The two copy machines at my school churn out paper for over 600 students; they are always warm. Warm – like the teachers who stand in line waiting to use them as they ask, “Are you in a hurry? Do you want to step ahead of me?”

            And then there is that fifth grade teacher with a classroom right across from the hallway copy machine. I suspect he knows how and where the copier “clogs” just by the noise it makes.  After school, I’ll see another teacher standing there with the machine beeping and flashing, trying to decipher the “fix it” diagram on the machine display.   Ten to one —before the teacher finishes reading, that fifth grade teacher has already opened the doors, removed the jammed paper, pulled the levers, and restarted the job.

             Are you into corporate team building? Standing at our elementary school copy machine may be the most meaningful professional development opportunity out there.

            In fact, one of my most memorable learning moments as a new teacher happened at the copier. I remember waiting for my turn to use the copier as a “veteran teacher,” who was just a year or two from retirement was straightening his finished worksheet stack.  He looked so composed.  Yet for me, as the machine whirled, images of student behavior issues, new curriculum, and parent calls cranked through my mind—everything new; everything impossible.

          When it was my turn to use that machine, I lifted the tray to set my paper down on the glass.   Then, something sparkling caught my eye — two pieces of dark chocolate wrapped in pink foil resting on the ledge by the “start” button.

           “The dark kind is good for you,” he gently advised as he walked away.

-Patricia Steinmeyer

Jumping In


This week, at Keuka Lake, New York my forty-nine-year-old husband enjoyed swimming with the kids–jumping into the lake off the dock repeatedly. When he emerged from the water in a state of pure euphoria, he announced, “It doesn’t matter whether you are nine or forty-nine…jumping off the dock into a lake always feels the same.” I couldn’t agree more.

Yet, I remember that as a nine-year-old staring down into the smooth, glassy deep water—I couldn’t bring myself to leap. I was too afraid.

Eventually, I overcame it. Maybe it was my father, who patiently waited at the end of the dock for me to jump in, promising to catch me if I went under. Maybe it was my mother, who waded in the water with me until I gradually gathered the courage to swim in the deeper water. Maybe it was one of my brothers and sisters, who jumped in laughing, making it look like such fun. So now at forty-seven, I can leap right in laughing and shouting; I have learned to override that split-second tinge of fear—but it nevertheless remains an element of the jump.

For me, like jumping off the dock, plunging into a new year of teaching brings back childhood sensations. The distinctive, soapy-rubber smell of fresh school supplies, the click of a new lunchbox fastener, the early morning dew on the grass, the fog lifting as we set off. The first day of school has a sensory experience all of its own—clean, smiling, hopeful.

How will the first day of school 2014 actually feel for teachers, parents and students? With so many school rules and procedures to convey, paperwork to complete, and “rigorous” curriculum to deliver in preparation for state testing, we may be tempted to dive in mindlessly. However, in her book, The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other, Harvard University Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot discusses the powerful role that childhood experiences have in forming teacher and parent attitudes toward school. In parent-teacher conferences, she observes:

There is something immediate, reflexive, and regressive, both for parents and teachers, about their encounters with one another, a turning inward and backward, a sense of primal urgency…The adults come together prepared to focus on the present and the future of the child, but instead they feel themselves drawn back into their own pasts, visited by the ghosts of their parents, grandparents, siblings, and former teachers, haunted by ancient childhood dramas. (Lawrence-Lightfoot 4)[1]

This observation reflects a crucial understanding that the innate responses formed by our own experiences of school—positive and negative—have profoundly deep implications for our children now and in the future.

The truth is that on the first day of school, while many of our children celebrate “jumping” into a new school environment, others may not. For educators, it takes patience and time to encourage those who hesitate to adjust to the “deep water” of new relationships, expectations, and challenges. Consequently, external classroom demands that tempt teachers to hurry, “toss the students in,” and mechanically tread water to keep afloat with curriculum and testing schedules may result in a learning experience that doesn’t even get our toes wet. After all, when it comes to both school and deep water, “It doesn’t matter whether you are nine or forty-nine…jumping off the dock into a lake always feels the same.”

[1] Lawrence-Lightfoot, Sara. The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other. New York: Random House, 2003. Print.


Keeping “Calm on Core” Standards

Ah…summer! A perfect time to pour an iced tea, reflect and luxuriate over next year’s lesson plans. In this leg of my teaching odyssey, I am a blissful lotus eater. On my summer island, the Common Core State Standards, this year’s new PARCC Assessment, and the new teacher evaluation process seem like a dream…

But these are reality for teachers, even as debates about the Common Core rage on.

In fact, last year, we “unpacked” those Common Core Standards. (“Unpacking” is Eduspeak for, “We read them closely to figure out what they meant.”)  So, now that I have an idea of what these Standards say, the next step is to find a way for my students to meet them.

As I review a couple of the Standards, I note that my 6th Grade Reading students will need to do such things as “Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says…” and “[i]ntegrate information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words to develop a coherent understanding of a topic or issue.” [1]  This means that my students will need to read closely and understand what authors say.  Also, my students will need to be able to analyze different texts and media to learn something new.  Important stuff for kids who will be writing the news someday…and voting.

So, it’s time to keep calm, pour another iced tea, and try some of the following:

(1) Surf the Internet and Twitter for some insightful professional conversations and resources related to the new core standards.

(2) Become familiar with school district resources and any new Common Core teaching materials for my classes that are accessible to me this summer.

(3) Identify which of the Common Core Standards are addressed in existing lesson plans and how they are assessed.

(4) Make notes about Common Core standard objectives that are not met through the current lesson plans, and brainstorm ideas to adjust and differentiate existing lessons for student success and engagement. (These can be discussed and developed with colleagues in the fall.)

(5) Develop tools to help students track their progress and reflect on their learning.

(6) Discover some meaningful ways to integrate technology for 21st Century Learning.

It’s a long summer…so why panic?. . . Pass the sugar and the lemon.

[1] See Common Core State Standards Initiative http://www.corestandards.org/

Math-Magical Ropes

Last spring in elementary school, we had “Dress Like A Teacher Day.” Several of the girls showed up dressed like me–the long skirt, the glasses, and the cardigan sweater.   These girls had the ensemble down: I’d actually be delighted to wear some of those outfits!  But the accessories my elementary math students sported were befuddling — short pieces of rope they called “math-magical ropes.”

Why ropes?  I had no idea why the kids were carrying ropes!

At last someone told me the answer:  Apparently one day in class, I was explaining a math concept.  But the children were not listening.  Instead, they were gazing at a crane with a dangling, rope-like cable operating just outside the classroom window.  When I followed their eyes and saw the apparatus, I exclaimed, “Wow!  There’s a math-magical rope!”

That was it.

The students may have forgotten that day’s lesson, but they sure remembered the math-magical rope.  Students have an astonishing capacity to carry around words that their teachers forget.

It’s helpless.  We teachers may never be able to math-magically reverse the number of forgotten words.  But we can definitely try to choose the ones that are light and easy to carry.




Summer “I Spy” for Parents

Summer is here, and it’s a great time to watch your child in action. In the classroom, I find that simply observing is one of the best ways to learn about children.  So, if you are looking for some new ways to keep your child geared up for learning, a little bit of friendly “spying” may tip you off!

1). Observe your child typing.

Yes. Typing. How long does it take your child to type a sentence? A paragraph? To search the keyboard for the “n” key?…With the dawning of the new Common Core State Standards, by fourth grade your child should “demonstrate sufficient command of keyboarding skills to type a minimum of one page in a single sitting.” By sixth grade, this expectation increases to three pages.

Increasingly, students are completing classroom work on computers. Now, look at your child typing.   Would a few minutes of daily summer typing practice be helpful?

2). Observe your child playing.

Is it difficult to do this during the long, summer months of camps, swimming lessons, and structured activities? If so, get rid of some clutter and give your child some play time to explore, dream up creative activities—and to deal with finding their own solutions to occasional boredom.

When there is nothing to do, does your child head straight for the television and video games? Try giving the screen a day or two “off”—It’s amazing how creative children can be within those limits. Challenge them to find something fun, inclusive, and safe to do or create on their own “electricity”!

3). Observe your child reading.

Does your child avoid reading new books and stories, and continually go back to the same, comfortable reads? It may be time to “shop the library” together for some new stories.

Do you observe that your child starts reading, finishes part of the first chapter, and then gives up on a story? Try helping your child discover a new story by reading the first few chapters of the book aloud to your child. Once engaged, he or she may find it easier to pick up the book and finish reading it independently!

 4). Observe your child using mathematics.

Does your child need to add and subtract when playing board games, talking about sports, buying an ice-cream cone, or measuring ingredients to make instant pudding? Observe your child’s math use during the summer, and let your child know that you notice. Also, share how you are using mathematics in your daily life.

…What if you do a great job spying, but you find that your child is not using math? Look for opportunities to enjoy mathematics that are easily within reach. Bake a cake; try some origami; plan a lemonade stand; build a fort; design a container garden; play Monopoly; track the number of miles walked in a week; map and create a budget for the next family outing; clip coupons and see what you can save together for an “end of the summer” treat…