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The Struggle Can Be Wonderful

Here is our truth. Students need our help. We need help. We need each another--everyone in the classroom and everyone in our buildings. And we need the humility to know that our best teaching years may never be realized because of the hundreds and thousands of unreported moments that matter to the young people we mentor.

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Tools of the Trade: Tidying Up

by Rita Sorrentino

On a recent flight during the holidays, a woman seated next to me was reading, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo. When she turned and asked me if I had read this book, I told her I was familiar with the concept through snippets I gleaned from TV and social media: get rid of those things that do not spark joy, handle your clothing respectfully, and when in doubt, throw it out. After a brief exchange of ideas, I reflected that although unfamiliar with Marie Kondo’s Zen-like relationship with possessions and strict rules for decluttering, I actually developed a propensity for organization from my mother whose practical wisdom motivated me to keep things tidy and orderly. My mother’s mantras still ring in my ears, “Why handle something twice? Put things where they belong the first time (especially keys). Consider the next person who might also need to use it. Keep like things together.” I believe my mother and Marie Kondo would have found common ground.


As a primary teacher for many years, I strove to keep materials and supplies for teaching and learning readily available in a safe environment. Fortunately with today’s digital landscape, we don’t need to keep files of lesson plans and piles of worksheets, but we still have to manage how our essential physical or digital materials are handled, and how time and space are best used for instruction. Most teachers spend significant time designing their classroom space for an optimal learning environment with special attention to various groupings for student learning activities. Here are some interesting resources to help us think along these lines of organization and decluttering for better living and learning.


Learning Environments

In “Decrease Classroom Clutter to Increase Creativity,” Erin Klein, a second grade teacher in Michigan, shares her research into how light, space, and room design have an impact on a student’s well being. She believes teachers can make a positive difference for student learning by helping students find evidence of their identity as learners with designated spaces and places for the projects they are working on. She suggests rearranging the classroom to reflect the current content the students are studying. Pay attention to visuals, posters and charts, because if they stay up all year, they lose their meaning. When interviewed by Leslie Harris O’Hanlon for Mind/Shift, Erin Klein went deeper into her theories of design, an area she studied before becoming a teacher. The classroom should be a soothing environment and not too busy with over stimulation. “For children the content of what you are teaching needs to be stimulating, not necessarily the environment.”



Today technology plays a huge role in our personal and professional lives. Certainly, there are many apps and tools for organizing tasks, backing up data, and enhancing the teaching and learning process. One of the handiest ways to lessen paper pileups and document student learning is the camera roll on our digital devices. Take photos of work in progress, writing samples, brainstorm sessions, report-out charts, etc. In classrooms where students have access to consistent and reliable use of technology, they can document steps in their learning process or procedural tasks. Teachers can take photos of work for referencing during conferences. Photos and videos in the camera roll are then available for incorporation in other content creation and curation.


In “The Qualitative Formative Assessment Toolkit: Document Learning with Mobile Technology,” Dr. Reshan Richards points out key guidelines and ideas for using and archiving media-authoring approaches for documenting and organizing formative assessments. Click here for an infographic describing an uncomplicated way for using photos, screenshots, videos and screencasting to document learning and why he claims that the “process is the product.”

Instructional Practices

While focusing our attention on tidying up for efficiency and productivity, this might be a good time to question ourselves about classroom lessons. Are there any instructional practices that could use a “spark of joy?” Can we find ways to declutter the curriculum, guide deeper learning experiences and/or empower students to take more ownership in demonstrating their learning? Matt Miller (@jmattmiller) offers some new, creative ways to use technology in keeping students engaged. In one of his blog posts from Ditch That Textbook, he suggests twenty engaging activities that don’t add extra time and don’t take much extra effort. One that I found enticing was creating an ebook using Google Slides. Change dimensions to 8.5 by 11, design and create each page, download as a pdf file and it is  ready for digital sharing.

Has this New Year motivated you to find opportunities for reorganization in your personal and professional lives? Where can you inject a spark of joy into an established routine? What practices do you find life-changing? Please share in the comments below.

Books on the Blog: Moo: a novel

by Lynne Dorfman


a wide silk of bluesilver

spotted with treegreen islands


a banner of bluewhite sky

41Ypg52oXoL.jpgIf you loved reading Love That Dog and Hate That Cat, you will not want to miss Sharon Creech’s newest tween novel, Moo. This story is about a family’s momentous move from the city to rural Maine, and an unexpected bond that develops between twelve-year-old Reena and one very ornery cow.

When the family moves to Maine, Reena is dreaming of picking blueberries and eating all the lobster she wants. Instead, she and her younger brother Luke are volunteered by their mother to help an eccentric neighbor named Mrs. Falala who has a pig named Paulie, a cat named China, a parrot named Crockett, a snake named Edna, and an enormous belted Galloway named Zora.  What happens next is amazing…

Told in a blend of poetry and prose with defining variation in print of different fonts and 51-5S7JNGBL.jpgsizes and unusual placements of words on pages to create word pictures for the reader, this delightful story will warm your heart. It is just right for so many middle schoolers who are between wanting to be children and wanting to be adults. The story has a full range of emotions from light and funny to sad and reflective. The characters are so different that they complement each other completely. Moo is a story about opening our minds and hearts to new experiences and letting others into our life so that we can grow, develop relationships and insights, and be renewed. Themes of loss, friendship, courage, and family are represented here in a story to love long after you finish reading the final page!

minneapolis-2015-lynne-paul-mary-and-me-5Lynne R. Dorfman is a Co-director of PAWLP and an adjunct professor at Arcadia University. She is eagerly awaiting the second edition publication this spring of her first book, Mentor Texts: Teaching Writing Through Children’s Literature, co-authored with PAWLP fellow Rose Cappelli.  Currently, she is writing Welcome to Writing Workshop with Stacey Shubitz. Lynne enjoys her role as President of Eta chapter of ADK and working with women educators who tirelessly raise monies for charities

Teacher to Teacher: Helping Children Become Better Spellers – What Parents Can Do

By Lynne R. Dorfman

As educators and parents, we realize the importance of spelling words accurately. Research indicates that spelling words in isolation does not transfer into daily writing habits. Even though the Friday spelling tests are popular, the time invested into memorizing word lists for spelling purposes does not really translate into time well spent. Parents like to help their children with schoolwork, and studying for weekly spelling tests is something most parents feel comfortable with in contrast to helping their children with math homework (since the new math programs develop math concepts and skills in a very different way than parents and grandparents remember).

If we give our parents a weekly or monthly suggestion to work on to help their children build spelling awareness and insight, then we may be able to substitute help with weekly spelling lists for something much better – the frequent and simultaneous use of real strategies that will help our students become better spellers. Rather than rote memorization, spelling should be viewed primarily as a process of conceptual learning. In reading and writing workshop and across the day, we teach students to spell in a variety of ways. We want our students to use their phonemic awareness, phonics-based classroom instruction, environmental print (word walls, etc.), tools such as dictionaries (on-line as well as print versions such as, thesauruses, spellcheckers, and knowledge of patterns to engage in written response.

In addition, we want our students to rely on a growing understanding of root words and their affixes gained in word study work in core reading time and guided reading groups as well as work embedded into content areas. Furthermore, our students should use their clear mental images of words often found in the stories, poems, and textbooks, and chapter books they are reading as well as their own written work to strengthen long-term spelling memory. Read more

“Writing to Learn” Can Be Sketchy by Paula Bourque

For many of us in our content area classrooms, we are encouraging more writing to learn.  We want our students to research and explore topics and concepts through writing.  I truly believe writing not only reflects our thinking, but it can shape our thinking as well.  As we choose the words we will put to paper we can often discover new threads of thought, more questions to explore, ideas we hadn’t emphasized before.  Sometimes the piece we started writing bears little resemblance to our final product.

 However we all know students in our classrooms who tend to copy down information verbatim, without analysis or interpretation.  They struggle to rephrase the words to avoid plagiarism rather than to reframe it into their own thoughts. They have difficulty determining importance and visualizing the information they are reading or researching. We need to find ways to help these students connect with what they are reading in order to learn more effectively. One approach may be a different kind of writing to learn…sketchnotes. Read more

Tools of the Trade: Voice Recorders

by Kelly Virgin

For years, as a part of my regular classroom writing revision routine, I have instructed students to read their writing out loud. They do this with partners; they do this with me; they do this in corners of my classroom with themselves. I have even acquired a few Toobaloos (a semi-circular tube that students can hold up to their head like a telephone), and when my students aren’t fake phoning each other across the classroom, they are mesmerized by how up close the sound of their own voices become.Image.jpg

But this year I have taken it a step further. This year I have my students record themselves reading their writing out loud. This allows them to actually experience their writing as the audience of their writing. The effect has been noticeable. Just today, I had a student who is a regular work dodger, ask to come back during lunch to make some changes to his writing and then to rerecord to see if it “sounds better.” I regularly notice students cringe when they hear a stumble in their writing and then see them return to the piece, without prompting, to revise. On a few occasions, I’ve even noticed students playing excerpts of their writing out loud for each other. With the help of some simple technology, these recorded writings have seamlessly blended into our writing workshop routine. Read more