Relationships First, Learning Second

Image result for students who are loved at home come to school to learn

It’s hard to believe that the summer came and went. While most people are out enjoying the last day of summer break, most conscientious teachers are busy preparing for their first day of the school year. They are planning how they will meet their new group of students. They are probably reflecting: How will I welcome my students to their new classroom? How will I get to know them? How will I establish strong relationships with my new group of students? Many of these teachers are excited and anxious about starting the new school year and meeting their new students.

A couple of days ago, I was having a phone conversation with my nine year old nephew. I asked him if he is excited to be going back to school. He sighed and said “I guess so.” Why would a child his age not be excited to go back to school? He informed me that he is not happy about his new teacher whom he often heard yelling and screaming in the classroom next door last year. Ouch! My heart ached for my sweet nephew. He’s already more anxious and intimidated by his new mean teacher. Kind of sad.

No child should be feeling this way about school, especially elementary school where we expect to see an abundance of nurturing and unconditional love for children. Fortunately, my nephew is a very good student and he has loving and supportive parents at home. Many children don’t have that luxury. Some don’t have a stable home environment. Some don’t have enough to eat at home. And some are left for long hours with sitters or in day care. For these children, school becomes a safe haven, a place to be loved and cared for.  The love and kindness teachers provide to all children goes a long way to helping them learn.

When my boys were younger, I always asked them about their school experience, especially their impression of their teachers, even their high school teachers. I found it interesting when they reported what they saw in their teachers that particularly impressed them. There was always something having to do with being caring, flexible,  having a sense of humor, and not strict. Through their feedback, I realized that taking time to build strong relationships with students is a critical prerequisite to teaching. Learning cannot take place in the absence of caring and trust.

Recently, I came upon this tweet posted by David Rockower, a middle school teacher. The students were asked to describe what a great teacher does, doesn’t do, says, and is.

The students thoughtfully and candidly defined what great teachers are and what they do:



How wonderful would it be if all teachers provide their students with the opportunity to describe “what a great teacher does, doesn’t do, says and is!” Children can provide us with a lot of insight into what is important to them and how we can be better educators to meet their needs and help them learn better.

Let’s redefine our purpose for joining the teaching profession. Let’s rekindle the initial spark and energy we had in our first year of teaching. Let’s place children at the heart of everything we do.  Let’s continue learning and growing into great teachers who are willing to go the extra mile for the children entrusted in our care. As we meet our new set of children, let’s focus on establishing positive relationships first as we set the stage for learning.

How will you build positive relationships with your students and school community? 


A Common Sense Approach to Learning


As today’s classrooms become increasingly more diverse, teachers must strategically plan instruction that complements the learning needs of these students. Teachers must differentiate their instruction to ensure that every student has access to learning. Teachers’ expectations must be high for all students including those who are struggling with language or disabilities. Moreover, accommodations must also be made for those students that need to be challenged with enriching activities and projects.

Differentiating instruction can be time-consuming and laborious. It is understandable that it is sometimes difficult and even frustrating to plan activities for the diverse student populations in the classroom. However, there are many resources on the web today that provide easy access to strategies and tools for facilitating differentiation. I have used the following FREE resources in my own classroom with much success. These wonderful resources can facilitate the planning of differentiated learning activities for ELLs and students with disabilities. All teachers need to do is create an account:

  • News Ela– is a wonderful website that provides access to high interest, standards based, thought-provoking nonfiction articles that can be accessed at five different levels. Students are able to annotate the articles and respond to critical thinking questions in writing. Using such a website allows students to read about the same topic but with different levels of difficulty. This way students are not frustrated but rather motivated to contribute to the discussion.
  • Read Works– is another wonderful website that provides access to high interest fiction and nonfiction articles organized by Lexile levels for grades K to 12. Every article also comes with high-order questions to assess comprehension. The site is especially useful for ELLs as it promotes vocabulary development.
  • Learn Zillion– is a fabulous website that provides 3-5 minute video lessons in literacy and math, downloadable slides, and other resources for practice. All lessons and other resources are easy to follow and aligned to the Common Core Standards. Teachers can utilize the clips to help students practice a skill, to understand a challenging concept, and to develop interest as the interactive video clips are engaging and complement the needs of visual learners.
  • Dare to Differentiate Wiki– is a great Wiki with a plethora of already made differentiated activities and resources for teachers to access and use with their struggling students as well as with students that need to be challenged.
  • The Learning Leader– this is a link to a page on a Wiki I created which provides more resources for differentiating lessons.
  • Web 2.0: Cool Tools For Schools – this site provides an extensive compilation of online resources and devices for differentiating learning using technology.
  • Reading Comprehension and Fluency for ELLs– this is a page on Colorin Colorado, an excellent website with a plethora of resources especially for ELLs. This pages provides great ideas for differentiating literacy instruction for English language learners.
  • Share My Lesson – this website provides many lessons with differentiated ideas and strategies for grades k to 5. Search by grade and curricular area.

This post on Edutopia provides many more tools for differentiating instruction using social media.

Including Choice:

The important idea behind differentiation is the inclusion of choice to accommodate a wide range of learning modalities. One effective way in creating choice driven tasks is through the use of learning menus. Learning menus are constructed with the same concept as the menus used in restaurants with appetizer, main course, and dessert components. The point is to allow students options when selecting an appropriate task from each category without imposing the one size fits all idea. Here’s a learning menu I created for Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco.

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Differentiating with Learning Menus from the Teaching Channel shows how the learning menus are successfully implemented in a 7th grade social studies classroom.  Here’s another way of using menus to promote independence while assessing and differentiating student learning.

If teachers put differentiation in the forefront when planning their lessons they will ensure that equitable accessibility to learning and assessment among all students. Here’s an example of an upper grades lesson plan  that is differentiated for all learners. Again, differentiation is by no means an easy task. It takes a lot of thinking, creativity and planning. All great teaching takes planning time and investment. But ultimately the noticeable results on students’ learning and growth will be well worth it.


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The Path to Greatness



This year more than ever before I realized how important it is to actually take time to self-reflect and  think about everything that I’m experiencing. This self-reflection helped me identify the learning I achieved from my experiences, whether good or bad. Every year before I would purchase a new, pretty looking reflection journal with the intention of using it to write my thoughts and reflections about my everyday work experiences; but it would only end up sitting on my bookshelf collecting dust. This year however I was somehow provoked into actually getting myself to write down what I’m feeling and thinking. Maybe, it’s because I really needed a mentor or someone to listen to me when I needed to vent about what I have been experiencing. I found writing to be my only consolation. The good thing about that though is that it helped me focus as I struggled to dig deeply in my thoughts to try to define why I’m feeling the way I’m feeling and what I needed to do to get to the next step in my journey.

Today, while browsing through all the wonderful resources on Twitter I came across this post HOW ARE YOU GOING TO GET TO THE NEXT LEVEL OF GREATNESS?  I was intrigued by the question, honestly. Greatness? I guess I was so unhappy where I was working this year that I didn’t think I was achieving any success let alone greatness. But reading this article I realized that we actually do achieve great things even when we seem to be entrenched in a pit of challenges.

As a Site Coordinator of a free standing Pre-K Center this year, I was responsible for managing the site and tending to everyday problems. I was the designee for the Assistant Principal when she was not present at the site. I quickly established procedures to efficiently and orderly manage the site. I demonstrated my leadership potential as I self-created a website, a calendar of events, a monthly newsletter and a Twitter account for the site. Since this was the first school experience for the majority of the children, I needed to make the parents and children feel welcomed and safe in our site. The parents entrusted us with their most precious gifts and they needed to feel comfortable leaving them in capable, loving and nurturing hands. I facilitated conferences between parents and teachers. I responded to parents’ inquiries regularly and maintained ongoing communication to alleviate anxiety, create transparency and strengthen partnerships between home and school. 

In retrospect, despite some obstacles that seemed to cloud my better judgement and deplete my morale at times, I believe that I have achieved a lot of success this year.


I learned that I need to rise above the problems to get to the next level of greatness; to get back on track and follow the steps towards my destination. I needed to focus on what I really want to do and what I’m really passionate about. I needed to pull myself out of the pit of challenges and focus on the successes; I needed to grasp on the reins of opportunity and get back to doing what I really love – working with teachers and students to improve literacy learning and achievement.

My role this year helped me grow in more ways than I anticipated. It helped me realize that the real path to greatness for me is not through management, but through real leadership. For me, that translates into finding myself and rediscovering my true passion. My true passion is collaborating with others and sharing my learning and experiences to promote success for all students and teachers. I took the opportunity and accepted a position of Reading Coach where I would be training teachers to help primary grades students achieve success in reading and writing. I feel that I’m part of bigger cause, where I would be impacting the learning and achievement of many teachers and students. I feel empowered and enthralled because I’m back on track to achieving greatness. 




It’s All About the Learning

I was recently asked this question in an interview: If you walked into a classroom, what would you expect to see and hear? What would the teacher and students be doing and saying?  In my mind, I immediately made connections with the type of classrooms I enjoyed observing and the type of classrooms I enjoyed teaching in. In these classrooms the teacher is not the center of attention, but the facilitator and the supporter. The teacher is one of the learners in the classroom, not the deliverer of information. Great teachers know how to hammer the nail in the foundation and give the students the opportunity to design and explore how they will construct the building. The teacher asks questions to guide the students’ thinking but she gives them room to develop their own questions; she allows them to take risks to explore and discuss their way of thinking; she provides opportunities for dialogue among the students and even with others outside the walls of the classroom.

In this classroom the students are free to ask questions, make claims, make proposals and have thoughtful conversations about the learning they are gaining inside and outside of the classroom. In this classroom, students and teacher have a vested interest in the learning process. They learn and grow together as they build on one another’s thinking. As their thinking process expands so does their learning and growth. In this clip from Sarah Brown Wessling’s ELA class, students are free to share their ideas, reflect and build on each other’s thinking. They listen to each other and agree or take exception to each other’s thoughts or perspectives. The teacher is a learner in this classroom as well and that inclusion of the teacher and students in the learning process promotes increased engagement and authentic learning. When students have the freedom to share their thinking and questioning in a risk-free, supportive learning environment, they develop into creative thinkers and problem solvers. We know we have succeeded when students are able to thoughtfully process what they are learning; when they are able to analyze and use evidence to support their thinking. That’s when we know that they have developed ownership of their learning as they become empowered to extend their learning even further.

As Holly Clark explains in this thoughtful Ted Talk, students in a compliant based classroom are deemed disrespectful when they talk with one another due to lack of understanding of the content. Instead of using inquiry to seek the cause of children’s disengagement and lack of understanding, teachers in those classrooms resort to using punitive measures to reprimand the child for speaking up. Unfortunately, that is still the case in many classrooms around the nation.

How can we change this faulty approach to instruction? Teachers and administrators truly need to change their thinking about how successful classrooms should look and sound like.  We need to understand that real learning happens in an environment that encourages dialogue and promotes thoughtful questions, not just from the teacher but from the students as well.

If we want to raise a generation of young people who are not afraid to question others and reflect on their thinking, then we need to start that in the classrooms. We need to teach our kids that it is alright to question authority and think critically about what they hear in the news and read on social media platforms. We need to skillfully embed technology in our teaching to assess and extend learning and growth. We need to teach our kids not to accept blindly but to think, reflect, research and respond thoughtfully. Teachers who are able to achieve all this in the classroom empower students with the passion for ongoing learning and imminent success in the real world, not just in school.  

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Meeting Our Students Where They Are

What if we utilize our students’ realities to make content learning more accessible? What if we immerse them in the planning and design of teaching that learning to others? What if we unlearn what we have been taught about what good teaching entails? What if we not only think out of the box but redesign it altogether?

These are just some of the questions that were swimming in my head following Dr. Christopher Edmin’s awesome presentation Teaching Method- Reality Pedagogy, the 4th conference in the 2015-16 Speaker Series: Lenses on Equity (hosted by the Office of Interschool Collaborative Learning).


Dr. Emdin is an assistant professor of science education and director of secondary school initiatives at the Urban Science Education Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. I first heard Dr. Emdin speak a few years ago in another conference and I remember being inspired back then by his knowledge, energy and passion for improving science education for our inner city youth. But this is the first time I hear him speak about the concept of Reality Pedagogy.

Through Reality Pedagogy, teachers give students the opportunity to express their voice and indicate how they would like to learn. It is teaching and learning based on the students’ cultural experiences. That is, teachers capitalize on inner city students’ knowledge of the Hip Hop culture to help them develop relationships with science education. Dr. Emdin challenges educators and administrators to unlearn what they have been taught thus far about what good teaching ought to look like. Instead of expecting students, especially students of color, to conform to how we teach what if we give them the floor and allow them the opportunity to engage in cogenerative dialogues, which are conversations between teacher and students about what is happening in the classroom.  The purpose of these dialogues is to promote a deeper understanding of how students learn best as they make connections with their real world knowledge of Hip Hop to understand the science content being taught.

Dr. Emdin encourages educators to make it their business to learn about the realities of the students they teach- their neighborhoods, their culture, their interests, their methods of communication- and use that knowledge to get them hooked. When that happens then they can begin to teach content. This idea of making content relevant to students’ realities is not new. However, it implores educators to delve deeply into the culture of their students to learn about their realities and use that to make the connection and thus facilitate content learning. When students make that connection, they succeed at learning.

To maintain that interest in learning, we have to also modify our approach to assessment. Varying the forms of assessments students can use to express their learning is essential to promote equity for students of color and disadvantaged students. Teachers should be flexible and open minded when assessing students because, simply put, not all kids are alike and not all kids learn the same way.

Listening to Dr. Emdin speak and trying to wrap my mind around his fast paced, energetic rhetoric, I felt that he is speaking to the inner teacher in all of us. I started thinking about the real purpose of education: What do we want more than anything for all our students? Do we want them to be happy and successful while enjoying the process of learning? Or, do we want to raise a population of automatons who learn nothing more than how to conform and memorize content just to recall it back on tests?

As teachers and administrators that are serious about completely eliminating the achievement gap and promoting equitable, authentic learning opportunities for all students, then we owe it to ourselves to take the time to listen to our students and learn about their thinking process and the issues they deeply care about. We have to capitalize on what they know best to get them to understand the content we hope to teach them.

Following Dr. Emdin’s presentation, a panel of teachers, administrators and a student discussed how they promote equity in their schools. Having a student be part of the panel and sitting side by side with teachers and school leaders is a phenomenal way of empowering youth and demonstrating that young people’s voices matter. The student, a senior from Thomas Edison High School, was very articulate and confident as his principal sitting by his side established that this type of student empowerment is the norm at his school. Students are encouraged to teach their peers and even plan out professional development for the teachers.

Just think about the endless possibilities we would establish for all young people if we give them the chance to express their voice; a chance to think, innovate and produce; a chance to feel respected for what they think and believe; a chance to feel important enough to contribute something worthwhile; a chance to use their experiences- their reality- as a gateway to learning together.

You can follow Dr. Emdin on Twitter @chrisemdin

Stimulating Our Students’ Word Knowledge


Throughout the summer months most teachers are on vacation from school, but their minds are busy reflecting and thinking about ways to improve learning and performance in the new school year. One of the most important things I’ve been thinking about lately is how to promote my students’ vocabulary development. Word knowledge is an area of weakness that I have witnessed across the board with my students from K to 12. Students often struggle to find the exact word to express meaning or communicate their ideas. Their limited stock of words prevents them from producing intricate and precise descriptions to invigorate their writing. Having a rich repertoire of words to articulate meaning, kids will develop into amazing writers and they will be able to communicate their ideas with eloquence.

Most educators now realize that the old fashion way of assigning vocabulary lists and having them complete workbook exercises is not effective in enhancing their students’ word knowledge. Unfortunately, that strategy is still used in some schools in the US today. We need to understand that workbook exercises are not going to produce a robust vocabulary in our students. Like most workbook activities, the vocabulary exercises are lengthy, redundant, and uninteresting. And more importantly they do not help kids learn the words. Most likely, those words are forgotten a couple of days following the unit test.

We need to promote word ownership. I have observed that the best way to learn new words is through effective use of the words. If we provide relevant opportunities for kids to use the words in a variety of ways, they will definitely learn those words and own them. That’s what it is about — ownership of the words. We know that we own a word when we are able to use it with confidence in conversations and in writing. That’s when the word becomes embedded in our psyche; when we can explain the word easily and find synonyms for it. Vocabulary development is by no means an easy task. It takes time, commitment and practice.

Immerse kids in word activities everyday: One way we can improve word knowledge is by reading aloud books that focus on the use of rich vocabulary and discussing the use of those words. 5 Quick Things Teachers Can Do to Increase Vocabulary Awareness provides some interesting ways of improving our children’s vocabulary everyday. It is important to intentionally reflect on these interesting words while reading to facilitate vocabulary acquisition for the children. Most of the time kids will remember a word that was used by a character in a book or a word that was used to describe the setting. But teachers must purposefully help students explore these words while reading to develop a true understanding and learning of the words. Another trick is to substitute different words for simpler words that we usually use in our communication with children. For instance, rather than say ‘talk’ we may say ‘converse.’ With time and regular use, children will recognize the synonymy of the words and they will begin using the new vocabulary as well.

Digital Word Tools: In my search to improve my students’ vocabulary development, I came across an article Web Tools for Studying Vocabulary Words which provides digital tools for students to learn new words by creating visual representations of those words. Among the tools described is ThingLink.

This tool lets users place tags on different parts of an image.  These tags can connect to multimedia content including video clips, audio recordings, text, or web links. Teachers can bring vocabulary lists to life by snapping a picture, uploading it to ThingLink, then adding tags that connect to different content. Students can tap the image to hear a definition, see a video of the term in context, or read a sentence where the word is used. Students can also create their own vocabulary posters to share with other students in their class.

This tool is an effective way of learning new words because it allows students to learn the word through visual representation. It offers a variety of ways of learning about the words in an interesting digital format. Many of these ways are effective in helping kids enhance their vocabulary knowledge thereby strengthening their communication skills.

Word of the Week:  An idea that is certainly not new and I have used in the past is to introduce “Word of the Week” with varied opportunities to use the selected word in conversations and in writing. The word can come from literature read in class or from graded word lists. The important thing is that we choose words that would be relevant to the students so that they would be more likely to use them in their communications.

Synonym Word Chart: Demonstrate that one of the ways we revise writing is by improving word choice. This kind of modeling allows children to see firsthand how writers make decisions about the words they use to make their writing more colorful and descriptive. But children can’t use better words if they don’t have access to those words. A way to make words accessible to children is by posting a synonym chart that offers choices of words with similar meanings to use in their writing. The idea of using Vocabulary Paint Chips to introduce kids to the variety of words to use in place of tired or overused words such as sad, nice, good, happy or said is an effective and engaging one that has been used by many teachers.


Vocabulary Word Wall: I have also posted words on a Word Wall in the past that students referenced mainly for spelling purposes.  This year, I want to use the Word Wall for vocabulary development.  Reading Rocket’s Word Walls page offers a variety of ways to use word wall to improve vocabulary development and writing skills across content areas.

There are many resources on the web to help teachers enhance vocabulary acquisition and ultimately strengthen their students’ communication skills. As we strive to achieve that goal, it is important to be consistent and innovative in our use of vocabulary development strategies. We must infuse our classrooms with rich words and encourage our students to take risks and use more interesting, robust words in their writing and dialogue.


What My Students Have Taught Me

Whether we realize it or not we are always learning something everyday. Sometimes the learning is small and may seem not worthy of mention. But even small bits of learning and relearning stimulate our growth and development into the people we are or hope to become. Over the years, my students have taught me many things.

My students have taught me that I will never succeed at teaching them new content if I don’t develop positive relationships with them first. How many times have we sat through professional development workshops where we felt disconnected from the presenter? We’ve all experienced situations like these where we eventually shut down and stop listening no matter how important the content may be. One of the ways I develop strong relationships with my students is by taking the time to really listen to them. I listen to their stories and I respond thoughtfully when they are experiencing pain or joy. I let them know that I value them as individuals and that I care about what they think.

When our students believe that we genuinely care, they will trust us!

I’ve learned that children learn best in an environment where they feel safe to take risks; where they will not be criticized, ridiculed, demoralized or condemned for feeling or thinking in a certain way. In small groups, students are naturally more comfortable about sharing their thoughts. But I also emphasize our good conversation behaviors where respect for everyone’s thoughts is the foundational premise.

I’ve learned that children will start to open up and share their thoughts and perspectives when they realize that they are important and that their voices count. One of the greatest impacts I’ve had on my children in my pull-out reading program is that I gave them room to think and reflect, verbally and in writing. The students I work with do not usually have these opportunities in the regular classroom. As such, they embrace the chance to talk and share what’s on their minds. At first, they were resistant and maybe even fearful about sharing and revealing their inner thoughts. Some were intimidated by negative criticism or reprimand in the past when they questioned authority. However, I alleviated these reservations when I took the plunge and shared first. They soon realized that I am human like them with fears, anxieties, and experiences when I felt vulnerable. When reading, I pointed out that it’s absolutely acceptable to question the author and ask questions and extend their thinking; that it’s okay to ask questions or disagree with someone respectfully as long as you support your claims with thoughtful reasoning.

I learned that we all need to adopt a growth mindset; that we are all part of a growth-oriented learning community. I let my students know that it’s fine to fail and not be on target as long as you learn from your mistakes and you keep on learning until you achieve success. With that in mind, my students started asking questions and thinking more creatively to reach their goals. They were more open to criticism and suggestions for helping them improve and progress.

I learned that kids live up to the expectations we have for them. If we value their thoughts and perspectives, then we need to provide our students with ample opportunities to participate in dialogue where they not only share their thoughts but learn from the thinking of others as well. These conversations are the gateway to true learning because they invite children to think about their thinking, to inquire, and to explore the topics of discussion further. If they feel that what they have to contribute to the conversation is relevant, children will be motivated to learn more and take risks as they apply that learning in their writing and reading.

As teachers, we have a critical role in establishing that safe space for all students to share their thinking and perspectives openly and freely without repercussions. My students have taught me that we learn best when we are not afraid to be ourselves and be willing to share our emotions and thoughts in a positive, learning environment.