Category Archives: Book Reviews

Professional books reviewed by educators

Intentional Innovation to Lead Creative Change

Intentional Innovation: How to Guide Risk-Taking, Build Creative Capacity, and Lead Change
By A.J. Juliani
(Routledge/Eye On Education, 2018 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Anne Anderson

A.J. Juliani lays out the purpose of Intentional Innovation: How to Guide Risk-Taking, Build Creative Capacity, and Lead Change on page 5:

“This book dives into a framework for not only dealing with change in the world, but empowering students, teachers, and staff to thrive in this environment.”

As Juliani points out, there is learning, unlearning, and relearning throughout this process. He fills his pages with stories of people who stepped out of their comfort zones. The family stories he shares will resonate with readers!

The book is divided into three sections.

Part 1: The Need for Innovation
Part 2: A Framework for Innovation
Part 3: Doing the Work

In Part 1, the author revisits the 4 basic stages of cognitive learning and continues with a discussion of the impact technology is having on our brains. He concludes Chapter 2 by reminding readers that we must “harness the beneficial ways technology can help in the teaching / learning process.” (p.32) Throughout the remainder of the book he offers suggestions and ideas to reach that goal.

In Part 2, he continues to guide readers in the intentional process of change and risk-taking. He introduces and explains how to implement the PLASMA Framework:

  • What to Praise, Look For, and Assess
  • Support What is Different
  • Make Time for Creative Work
  • Allow for the New and Unknown

School leaders will find numerous ideas and suggestions that give students opportunities to explore, make, and create. The reader will have to pick and choose from a wide range of activities. I know I would pick “Appeals Day.” At the end of the grading period, Juliani allows students to appeal a grade in a respectful manner. He shares several benefits but concludes that the biggest benefit was “how hard my students collaborated and worked to prepare for Appeals Day.” (p. 110)

As with any change, there will be criticism. In Part 3 he offers practical guidelines for risk-taking along with ideas for celebrating both failing and learning. He offers four thoughts about dealing with criticism: (pp.116-117)

  1. When you take risks, criticism will follow.
  2. Don’t dismiss all criticism; take it for what it is.
  3. Keeping it to yourself is not going to help.
  4. Add fuel to your creative fire.

He reminds readers that we should not celebrate the failure, “but instead celebrate the act of taking the risk and bouncing back, regardless of the outcome.” (p.129)

As someone who began her teaching career with one piece of technology, a 16mm film projector, I found the book very enlightening. I truly appreciated the author’s statement on page 145: “Let’s stop thinking about technology as a cure or savior for education.” Today’s educators have a plethora of technology at their fingertips; this book guides them to make intentional choices for their classrooms.

School leaders might consider Intentional Innovation as a book study. It’s a book that should cause educators to examine their own beliefs and practices related to technology. Juliani’s grandmother said it best: “The focus on relationships should never change, even if the way to build those relationships does change.” (p. 89)

A free study guide is available here.

Anne Anderson is a retired middle school teacher living in Shreveport, LA. Now she shares her expertise as an educational consultant providing educators with practical solutions to teaching and learning problems. Contact her at

Fresh Approaches to Academic Conversations

Next Steps with Academic Conversations: New Ideas for Improving Learning Through Classroom Talk 
By Jeff Zwiers
(Stenhouse Publishers, 2019 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Dr. Kelley Pujol

I was drawn to Jeff Zwiers’ book because the title promised me some new ideas to improve student learning through academic conversations, and because the title acknowledged what an academic conversation actually is or at least where it begins.

Academic conversation begins, foundationally, as classroom talk.

I found this title especially intriguing when working with students at the middle school level, a level at which many students for a multitude of reasons can begin to fall back on what Zwiers calls “the one liners” (pg. 158). Middle school is such a crucial time for students to gain the confidence and the voice to recognize, discuss, and develop academic ideas as the foundation for a lifetime of academic conversations.

Academic conversations create lifelong learners – learners who believe they have a voice in the conversation of ideas across time. Zwiers’ book provides some new, novel, and effective means to equip teachers with the tools to promote academic conversations in their classrooms.

Getting students started with visual tools

One of the best features in this book is the inclusion of visual tools for students to use in the process of conversation. Zwiers offers Idea Building Cards that conversing students can use to construct dialogue and clarify meaning. These cards provide students with a visual building block that can help take them beyond the one liners. Even if they get stuck, the visual cards give them the tool they need to probe deeper.

Examples are given across various subjects, from Math and Science to Literature and History. Information on how to introduce and carry on Socratic discussions and what Zwiers refers to as “meta conversation moves” (pg. 133) are also provided. In addition, the appendices include various other visual aids as well as self and peer assessment tools along with organizers for third party observers.

A great communications refresher course

This book is far, however, from just being a workbook with templates and ideas on how to utilize them. Zwiers’ rational is well developed and based in current findings. It is also obvious that he is an experienced teacher, as he speaks with authority, humility, and a real love for his students. I would also go as far as to say this book is a great all-around communications refresher course for meaningful conversations, regardless of the reader’s age or profession.

Read an article by Jeff Zwiers here at MiddleWeb

Sprinkled throughout the book are examples of real students’ conversations. They are a testament to the fact that two heads are indeed better than one. Zwiers also acknowledges that while some may think he is stereotyping students or implying that they are lazy, he is not. He is simply recognizing that all students come to us wanting to learn, and by middle school we may have squashed their naturally occurring curiosity through “mile wide, inch deep, disconnected, silent, test focused curriculum” (pg. 32).

Helping students discover depth together

Children and all human beings crave learning, being known, being heard, and being accepted. In a world that has all too often retreated into thought bubbles and group-think discussions, learning the skills and importance of academic discourse in the safe space of the classroom is all the more important for future (and even current) citizens of the world. This book is a great place to start.

Dr. Kelley Pujol is the director of curriculum and instruction at Providence Christian Academy (PCA) in Murfreesboro, TN. Dr. Pujol has taught, presented, and published on topics that range from literature to leadership and is a certified John Maxwell coach, speaker, and trainer.

Using SEM to Develop Student Mathematicians

Using the Schoolwide Enrichment Model in Mathematics: A How-to Guide for Developing Student Mathematicians 
By M. Katherine Gavin, Ph.D., and Joseph S. Renzulli, Ed.D.
(Prufrock Press, 2018 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Michael Hernandez

This roomy 160-page book (8.5” x 11”) shows how to apply strategies of the SEM (Schoolwide Enrichment Model) specifically to the math classroom.

It is aligned with the Mathematical Practices for Common Core State Standards which are the same for grades and states mirroring the Common Core. This book instructs educators how to develop a classroom environment of “enjoyment, engagement and enthusiasm for all students.”

Even if the reader is not familiar with the Schoolwide Enrichment Model, this book could prove beneficial.

It begins with a chapter entitled “Overview of the Schoolwide Enrichment Model.” Other chapter titles include “Developing Mathematical Talent in Your Students,” “Developing Type II Processes and Skills in Mathematics,” and “Implementing the Enrichment Triad Model in Math – Many Pathways for Learning.”

It also includes chapters specifically devoted to enrichment opportunities in each of the three types.

Involving students in active learning

In chapter 4, Gavin and Renzulli state,

“Developing Type II processes in mathematics means learning and working like a mathematician. This is often far from what a typical math classroom looks like. Often we see the teacher standing in the front of the room, using the math textbook as a guide, and writing … to show students how to do an example. However, this is not how mathematicians work, and this is not how students should be learning mathematics.” (pg 79).

The authors then offer strategies such as “talk moves” and writing in math class to demonstrate how to develop these skills in students.

Chapter 5, “Type II Enrichment in Action,” addresses the critical issue of finding appropriate math content that will enable the teacher to help students develop the desired math skills. It then provides examples of Type II activities that pose rich problems which require both critical and creative thinking with the goal of much deeper understanding of math.

K-12 mathematical investigations

Sections called “View from the Classroom” are included throughout the book. They offer examples of specific mathematical investigations in the classroom. Numerous examples from Primary, Elementary, Middle School and High School classrooms are presented.

Chapter 6 addresses Type III Enrichment, which the authors state is the “capstone of the enrichment triad model” (page 107). Teachers are reminded of their role in this process is to be “a guide, cheerleader and mentor” (page 108). The book explains steps to assist the teacher in identifying student interest, using authentic methodology and making a plan to guide the students toward completion of the project.

SEM for a variety of classroom situations

The authors recognize differences in teacher styles, interests and abilities. They also realize teachers are working within vastly different structures with many types of students. So in the final chapter, they discuss how the Student Enrichment Model may be implemented in a wide variety of environments.

An appendix is included which provides an extensive list of the authors’ favorite resources which should help in planning Type I, II and III enrichment for students.

The back cover claims this book is easy to read and use. Not being proficient or fluent in the terminology of the Schoolwide Enrichment Model, I personally found this to a challenging read. However, the book does provide many practical suggestions, including the previously mentioned views from the classroom along with sample activities which I found to be motivating and informative.

I have already incorporated some classroom discussions and written activities using ideas from the book. I plan to use more ideas as I become more familiar with SEM.

Michael Hernandez is an eighth grade Math and Algebra teacher near Akron, Ohio. He has served on the Ohio Math Model Curricula and Content Advisory Committees. He began his career working with middle school, high school and college students. Through the years, he was “promoted” to the point where his time was spent mostly with adults. Now he is back with the young people he loves whom he has been teaching for 10 years.

Fiction: “Adequate Yearly Progress” Is a Hoot

Adequate Yearly Progress
By Roxanna Elden
(Atria Books/Simon & Schuster – Learn more)

Reviewed by Rita Platt

If you’ve been in the classroom for more than a few years, you know both the good and bad side of the profession. Sometimes, it’s more good than bad. Those years, we can shut our doors and teach children while mostly ignoring the politics of testing – the onslaught of new “best-practice” related edu-babble, and those higher in the food chain who push us in every direction.

Other years, it feels like bad is winning. We have a tidal wave of directives, tough groups of kids, and we can’t even find peace behind our closed classroom doors.

Being a teacher is hard. Those of us who have taught in schools with less than successful academic track records know it’s often very hard. So-called “failing schools” are bombarded with bad ideas from outside consultants.

Even the hardiest among us needs to stop, take a breath, focus on the good stuff, and remember why we became educators. For my money, the best way to do that is to laugh.

Reading Roxanna Elden’s book chronicling the trials and tribulations of teachers and administrators at fictional Brae Hill Valley High School made me laugh. A lot.

Here’s someone who knows what it’s like

Elden, an NBCT and author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers, gets it. She knows teachers and she knows the cacophony of carpetbaggers who – in the guise of experts – can leave teachers bedraggled and downtrodden.

She introduces readers to Lena, an English teacher and spoken word poet looking for love in the wrong places. We meet Hernan, a good-hearted science teacher who, in spite of the odds, makes learning happen in his classroom but isn’t rewarded for it. Kaytee, a Teach for America-type, learns some hard lessons while also learning to love public schools, warts and all.

Many other characters round out the fictional faculty, and all deal with the flavor-of-the-month reform nonsense ushered in by new superintendent, Nick Wallabee, who spouts platitudes such as “Believers are achievers” and forces principals to issue “believer ratings” to teachers.

Truly, Elden’s themes are dark. Public education faces a great many obstacles, and she aptly makes the reader think deeply about the impact of many of them. From poverty to absentee parenting, from big-business, factory-style education management to shaky alternative teacher-licensing programs, and from high-stakes testing to crumbling facilities, Elden doesn’t flinch.

The portrait Elden paints of inner-city high schools seems bleak and often close to the truth; there is much darkness in our public schools, many of which are starved for resources. But, there is good there too. Thankfully Elden also shines a light on the positives, with well-written and believable examples of the small everyday successes teachers have and how they can and do touch the lives of the children they serve.

Even better, Elden makes the reader laugh. Take, for example, the chapter titled, “Faculty Engagement.” There Elden shared the acronym PHCDMACD, which is “short” for the Pre-Holiday Cross-Departmental Midyear-Assessment Data Chat – held annually in Brae Hill Valley’s media center. As teachers enter the room, they encounter a life size mechanical Santa decoration. But, sadly,

“The years in the school’s supply room had been rough on Santa. He’d developed some programming glitches, one of which caused him to stop mid-sentence, give one jerky kick, and yell, ‘Ho!’” The Santa didn’t so much spread holiday cheer as add to the crazy vibe at Brae Hill. So much so, Elden relates, that “There is a sign near him that reads, ‘Students, stay three feet away from Santa at all times.’”

Educators, read the book. You earned it. You deserve it. Kick up your feet, shout a hardy “Ho!” and laugh off some of your stress.

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a National Board Certified Teacher with master’s degrees in reading, library, and leadership. Her experience includes teaching learners in remote Alaskan villages, inner cities, and rural communities. She currently is a school principal, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute and blogs at Heart of the School for MiddleWeb.


A How-To Guide: School Improvement for All

School Improvement for All: A How-To Guide for Doing the Right Work 
By Sharon V. Kramer and Sarah Schuhl
(Solution Tree Press, 2017 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Kathy Pham, EdD, NBCT

I wonder if you, like me, are always a bit wary of any claim that uses an absolute. Examples are “Get ALL of your clothes clean and bright” or “Eat ALL these foods to stay healthy” or “Use ALL these interview tips to get your dream job.”

Such statements usually make me feel that the authors are a bit shady, as I mentally scoff that nothing can live up to the ALL claim.

However, I give the authors of the book, School Improvement for ALL, a pass on the absolute prohibition, simply because even though I mistrusted the title at first, it is indeed accurate in this instance. The book really is applicable and useful for any group of teachers or other leaders interested in making positive changes in their school.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must also reveal that I was already a huge fan of professional learning communities (PLCs). Along with some negative experiences where the concept was horribly misapplied, I have more often seen the power of PLCs with their beautiful “Aha!” moments for teachers, and the resulting increases in student learning.

What makes PLCs effective

This book describes PLCs for school improvement and provides just the right mix of theory and application, with lots of useful charts and templates that are easily customized for the work in any educational setting.

Every chapter starts with commentary about how to determine vision versus reality, outlines ways to get from one to the other, and then provides concrete tools and steps to follow as a plan of action. The subtitle “A How-To Guide for Doing the Right Work” is also accurate.

In fact, I bet that just quickly flipping through the pages will show you a chart or table that is relevant to work on a team. The book is also a quick read – not something that is so metaphorically heavy it just sits on the shelf in the “Yeah, I should read that sometime” pile. When your book arrives, please move it into the “I can use this now” pile.

How the book starts

The introduction has a “Duh!” feel as the authors note that leadership requires assembling a team both willing and capable of leading change. Also, once designed, the activities “demand a commitment from everyone to be all in for student success” (p. 3).

In the first chapter the authors point out that “The single most important task a principal can do to ensure high levels of learning for students and adults is to build a leadership team. We use the term school learning team and within that structure, the principal is not an ‘instructional leader’ but the ‘lead learner’ on the team” (p. 9).

Those labels appealed to me because very often coaching, mentoring, or other support programs operate from the perspective of “I know it and you don’t, so let me help you” – instead of from the ground level with a “let’s study this and learn together” perspective.

From “working hard” to “working right”

The book goes on to explain that “Once teams understand the current reality, the next step is to create a shared vision for change” (p. 16). One of the key themes of the book is that “Collaborative teams must engage in the right work.” Most educators can tell horror stories of meetings that stretched on without purpose or accomplishment, in spite of the best intentions and lots of intense work. That idea of switching expectations from simply “working hard” to doing the “right work” really resonated with me.

The chapter on transforming both the culture and the structures or processes within a school provides both the philosophy — “To move from a toxic or negative culture to a healthy culture requires a shift in mindset for the staff” (p. 29) — and some practical ideas and charts, such as taking an artifact walk around the school while reflecting on and recording important symbols and rituals.

The suggested activities build on the idea of moving from the current reality to the vision. Before any movement can happen, the starting point must be established.

Updating tools to reach all students

The next chapter reminds us that we must first operate with the belief that all students can learn and extends that idea to our obligation to understand and provide the 21st Century Skills students need now and in the future. To do this, “As teachers work to improve learning, it is critical to know who 21st century learners are and what they need to be successful” (p. 42).

Among the ideas discussed are the need for students to learn process skills and standards in each subject area, and to experience more student-centered learning. It is only when our education system makes some of those shifts that we will truly be able to prepare students for the world they will inhabit.

Shared understandings of standards and curriculum

Chapters 4 and 5 discuss the idea of a “Common Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum” and the corresponding use of Common Assessments, both of which come under that umbrella of the “right work.” The emphasis is not necessarily on having the same curriculum for all, or even the same standards for all, but instead on the idea that within the team, or school, or district, or whatever the group is, all the members must share the same understanding of the standards and curriculum. “With a guaranteed and viable curriculum, teams can work intentionally and focus their efforts on clearly defined student outcomes” (p. 57). This is because:

Five different teachers can read a standard and interpret it five different ways. To have a guaranteed and viable curriculum that is equitable for all students, teachers on a collaborative team must share an understanding as to the content and skills students must demonstrate to be proficient with the standard.” (p. 63)

Once that understanding is in place – and the book provides some tools to help teams find that place – then they can determine the best common assessments to use. “It is not that one type of test is good and another bad; rather, the lack of balanced assessment vision in a school often leads to over-testing and under-instructing” p. 79).

Again, the focus is not on the inherent qualities of a particular assessment but instead on how the assessment in question fits into the shared understandings that the team has developed.

Designing meaningful instruction

The next step in the school improvement process, outlined in Chapter 6, is that of meaningful planning and effective instruction. Most of us would agree that “Designing meaningful and effective instruction is one of the most critical tasks that teaching requires – and one that greatly influences student learning” (p. 113).

But I also know the reality that planning is often treated as a step-child, and planning time is rescinded or filled up with other activities deemed more critical or immediate. In other instances “common planning” is simply mandated without adequate supports, so that time is wasted and teachers become resentful.

Once the school improvement team has established their instructional vision, they can then begin to plan and determine effective instructional strategies. The authors provide some tools for analyzing current practice and then moving toward implementing effective strategies. They also list nine strategies that research by Marzano and others has shown to be effective, and reiterate the need to match them to student learning needs.

Intertwined accountability

The last chapter, “Embracing Accountability,” includes the dreaded “A” word, but uses the term in a much more realistic manner than is often used in the public narrative of education.

In the same way that collaborative learning in the classroom requires both individual and group accountability, in the school improvement work suggested in this book teacher teams, school leadership, and impacted students all have responsibilities to the process that make them all accountable to each other and to the whole.

The authors ask this question: “Why do teachers do the difficult, time-consuming, and at times spirit-draining work of designing lessons, creating and administering assessments, responding to students’ learning, and taking time to really know students?” They respond with: “This entire book rests on the premise that the answer is this: because of a desire for all students to learn at high levels and to open the doors of opportunity to every student.” (p. 137).

This is a practical book. The term “lead learner” is applied to the administrator on the School Improvement Team described by the authors. If you are such a “lead learner” or any other educator who is a “learner,” you will find this book a useful addition to your bookshelf. A Study Guide and additional resources are also found on the publisher’s website here, accessible through registration.

Kathy Pham is a National Board Certified Teacher with 37 years of experience in Miami-Dade County Public schools, where she has taught Language Arts and worked in the Professional Development Department. As a member of NBCTs of Miami-Dade, she has collaborated with the district and the union to provide opportunities for NBCTs to contribute to the profession and support early career teachers.

She recently completed a Doctoral Program at Florida State University where she studied the experiences and perceptions of teachers who participated in the iHEAT Program of her district.

A Look at Some Teachers Working Outside the Box

Maverick Teachers: How Innovative Educators are Saving Public Schools 
By David E. Baugh and A.J. Juliani
(Routledge/Eye On Education, 2019 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Abby Bateman

There are many different types of teachers in the education field. The spectrum can range from the most traditional teacher to educators who truly embrace teaching outside of the box. This book highlights a selection of nontraditional teachers who are comfortable with change and their non-traditional methods of teaching.

The first time I read Maverick Teachers I was mesmerized by the different teachers highlighted in each chapter. Each teacher has a truly inspirational story and displays a great passion for teaching and their students.

Then I reflected on the content again and realized this book does not address the subtitle claim, “how innovative educators are saving public schools.” If you are a teacher wanting to make the leap from the traditional side, this book lacks the details of how to make that change. It also lacks the data to motivate and further support teachers to take that leap.

I appreciated the variety of teaching positions that were highlighted throughout the book, from Kindergarten and ELL to Math, ELA, STEM, and many other grade levels and subjects. I found the importance of space layout, working the room, building trust and relationships in students, and also how listening to and using students’ interests, were all themes that resonated throughout each chapter and with each educator. The highlighted educators all find great value in building relationships, connecting with students and making them feel valued and a part of their learning, not just test subjects.

As much as I liked the inspirational stories, however, I found Maverick Teachers lacked an explanation of how these innovating teachers are “saving public schools.” There are no details of how these teachers put their innovative ways into action, where they got funding, if they got pushback or resistance from colleagues or teachers, or if and how they spread their innovation.

So how do we get there?

Like me, other readers might desire a deeper look behind the scenes, with more specifics about lessons, techniques and strategies that might lead to “saving public schools.” Additional data (really, any data) to support how these educators are saving their schools (not just the kids in their classes) would be appreciated as well. There’s no qualitative or quantitative information provided that describes how the schools were before these educators applied their outside-the-box methods and what substantive positive changes occurred after they began innovating.

There is sometimes a vague mention of how a school was previously running, or how the teacher used to teach, compared to what they focus on now, but again it is lacking the significant details that might make this book helpful to others. Indeed, there is no mention of what other colleagues think of these innovative teachers (except the administrators, who all seem to be very supportive). “Saving schools” requires schoolwide impact and that’s a story that’s missing here.

In reading Maverick Teachers, I felt like I was reading a Chicken Soup for the Non-Traditional Teacher. The inspirational stories feature teachers whose work is easy to admire. I just wish the book was as much about the professional growth of the reader as it was about the mavericks’ accomplishments – that it contained more details and some data to support teaching methods we might want to emulate.

Any teacher that teaches “outside the box” will feel connected with these teachers, and there are examples for administrators in how to support them. As I read the book a second time, I began to pick out similar traits among the profiled educators and good general teaching strategies that any teacher should be encouraged to incorporate as best as they can. But in the end, I was disappointed in not finding more pieces of a framework for whole school change.

Abby Bateman, a 7th Grade math teacher in Saint Croix Falls, WI, has been teaching for 18 years and has earned a Master’s degree in mathematics education. She is also a teacher of computer science (coding) and STEM and is an interventionist teacher. She truly enjoys teaching middle school students; they keep her alert, inventive and on her toes. When she is not teaching, she enjoys spending time with family (her own middle school-aged children) and knitting.

Using Socratic Methods in the Classroom

Socratic Methods in the Classroom: Encountering Critical Thinking and Problem Solving through Dialog 
By Erick Wilberding
(Prufrock Press, 2019 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Laurie Bobley

Erick Wilberding’s Socratic Methods in the Classroom: Encountering Critical Thinking and Problem Solving through Dialog focuses on helping educators start using the Socratic Method in upper middle and high school.

Teaching through the Socratic Method can help students demonstrate their knowledge, consider other points of view, and reframe and refine their own thinking with a more critical and wide-lens perspective. The book includes a bevy of theories behind the practice and provides some templates and tips for educators to prepare to dive into this method.

A Template and Instructions

One of the strengths of the book is how the author outlines the steps for presenting or reviewing content through Socratic questioning. The steps include selecting an issue, writing Socratic scenarios, creating a question outline (a combination of basic, exploratory and analytical questions), assigning student roles, and engaging in a Thinking Aloud/Thinking Allowed discussion.


If you enjoy a historical perspective and a lot of theory, this book is for you. The author devotes one chapter to the philosophical and psychological underpinnings of critical thinking and a second chapter to the historical and contemporary views of the Socratic Method.

The second chapter concludes with Wilderding’s interpretation that the Socratic Method can, and should be, tailored to different knowledge domains because “Knowledge within different domains is constructed in different ways” (p. 17).

Wilderding supports his contention with ideas from religion, medicine, law, business, the humanities and sciences in high school and college. In Chapter 3, drawing from passages from Plato’s dialogues, the rationale for Maieutic Questioning (an expression derived from ancient Greece that basically means midwife questioning) is presented. Maieutic questioning “helps the other person give birth to his or her ideas” (p. 40).

Some good examples are provided, but it can be a bit difficult to get through the theory of ”why” and onto the more practical “how to.” The book is geared to the older student, grade 8 and above. From its description at the Prufrock website, a companion book by Wilberding, Teach Like Socrates, might be less theoretical.

Laurie Bobley is a former science teacher who has worked extensively with high needs populations in middle and high school. Currently, she is the Chairperson of a graduate-level teacher education program in New York City and is passionate about teacher development and children learning in the way that they learn best.

Climbing the Literacy Ladder in Grades 4-5

Climbing the Literacy Ladder: Small-Group Instruction to Support All Readers and Writers, PreK–5 
By Beverly Tyner
(ASCD, 2019 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Pam Hamilton

Teaching is hard. There, I said it. And elementary teachers have the added difficulty of teaching students how to read.

Historically, the narrative has been that upper elementary teachers don’t need to know how to teach students to read—they work on the reading to learn strategies. However, more and more of our students are needing more from us these days.

Unfortunately, upper elementary teachers don’t always have the literacy knowledge that they need to teach the reading skills their students may need in today’s classrooms.

Good news. In Beverly Tyner’s newest book, Climbing the Literacy Ladder, she addresses this problem. In the introduction she states:

“This book is intended to be a ‘one-stop shop’ for teachers in need of a plan, rationale, and materials to differentiate literacy instruction for all students in prekindergarten through 5th grade.”

Tyner presents plans that address the six developmental stages of reading and writing: Emergent, Beginning, Fledgling, Transitional, Fluent, and Independent. Each stage (rung) has its own chapter, which begins with a clear definition of what characteristics a student in that stage would already possess.

Each chapter also includes lesson plan components for that stage, a classroom scenario, strategies and activities to use in your classroom tomorrow, and a description for how to know when to move a student to the next stage. Tyner has also listed the common standards for each stage for fluency, word study, vocabulary, comprehension and writing about reading.

There’s also a chapter on formative assessments that can be used with students, which includes information about rubrics, fluency, running records, word study, vocabulary, comprehension, and portfolios. In addition, there is a clear scope and sequence for word study at each stage.

The lesson plan components, classroom scenarios, strategies and activities for the Beginning-Independent stages were very practical and seemed to be in line with best practices. I can imagine classroom teachers using these tools successfully with their striving readers, even when the teacher is not fully comfortable with the idea of teaching a student at some of the lower stages.

All in all, a practical book, with ready-to-implement ideas for teachers looking for support in their reading instruction.

Pam Hamilton is an intermediate literacy coach in Middlebury, Indiana. She is a trained Reading Recovery teacher and has been in education for over 25 years. She enjoys working alongside teachers as they instill a love of literacy in their students. She also enjoys being wife to Steve and mama to two beautiful daughters, Allie and Peyton.

Happy Kids Don’t Punch You in the Face

Happy Kids Don’t Punch You in the Face: A Guide to Eliminating Aggressive Behavior in Schools
By Ben Springer, PhD, NCSP
(Corwin, 2018 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Rita Platt

You know it’s a great book when you can’t wait to talk to the author and thank him for the gift he gave by writing it.

That’s the kind of book school psychologist Ben Springer has written. Happy Kids Don’t Punch You in the Face: A Guide to Eliminating Aggressive Behavior in Schools so touched me that I was moved to email Springer as soon as I turned the last page.

That email led to a nice exchange between the author and me that redoubled my feeling that Springer’s voice is one that needs to be heard in today’s efforts to help educators be more mindful of how to serve our students who, for one reason or another, exhibit extreme behaviors in school.

The Big Idea

Working educators all over the nation are dealing with challenging behaviors, and for many of us these behaviors seem more extreme and aggressive each year. There are tools and strategies that can help educators help kids decrease undesirable behaviors and live happier lives.

Springer’s book offers “a positive approach to behavior intervention for results that work – and last!” (back cover). The stated goals are to:

  1. identify the roots of aggression.
  2. offer strategies to prevent aggression.
  3. help educators respond safely to student aggression.
  4. foster compassionate relationships with students.
  5. help schools adapt to the needs of students with extreme behaviors.

Each chapter is full of easy-to-understand and fascinating (and sometimes counterintuitive) research and theory, tools and resources for immediate implementation of ideas, and case studies.

Just as important, for me anyway, each chapter is also sprinkled with a heady quantity of humor. You know what? Teaching is hard. It’s even harder when we have kiddos who ask for the help they need in the worst of ways. If we don’t laugh, it’s gonna be a long year….

The Chapters

The book begins with an introduction that tells the harrowing true story of extreme behavior known as the Thanksgiving “Lentil Incident” (yes, it’s just as terrifying as it sounds) and it ends with a conclusion that offers a “where are they now” roundup of what happened to the kids and teachers in the case studies.

In between are seven information-filled chapters designed to help educators meet the goals listed above. Below is a very brief summary of each.

Chapter 1: The Roots of Aggression and the Coercive Cycle

Here Springer shares the research on aggressive behaviors and the findings that point to a combination of nature and nurture factors, writing “While the nature-versus-nurture debate is an interesting one, modern-day thought and practice have left us with a nice big Jackson Pollock-esque picture of aggression in children” (p. 9).

That said, even if it’s a part of a person’s genetic make-up, we can ameliorate aggression by working to break the “coercion cycle” where we inadvertently reinforce aggressive behaviors.

Chapter 2: What Does Not Work 

Twenty-five years into teaching and fourteen into parenting, I still need reminders to abandon (and re-abandon) discipline strategies that simply don’t work. Springer helps us remember to just say no to corporal punishment, suspension (with rare exception), and reprimands, especially the public kind.

Chapter 3: The Triangle of Power

This will be very familiar to educators who use a multi-tiered system of support for academics (RTI) or behavior (PBIS) in their schools. The chapter offers a summary of each tier along with tools and strategies to help screen for student needs and prevent aggression when possible.

Chapter 4: Happy Kids Don’t Punch You in the Face

Chapter four takes readers on a journey through the positive psychology movement and shares strategies to help kids stay happy in schools through helping build the “pillars of happiness” (p. 44) with RICH (building their Resources, Intimate connections, Competence, and Health). This chapter resonates for me, as my own 2019 book is all about helping schools develop such that all are Working Hard, Working Happy.

Chapter 5: Principles of Applied Behavior Analysis

Here we learn how to get to the root of aggressive and other problem behaviors so we can develop plans that meet students’ needs before they act out. This chapter is power-packed with practical tools and helped me simplify my own thinking about how to develop helpful plans for the kids I serve.

Chapter 6: Optimistic Teaming

Working with troubled children can be, well, troubling for educators. Chapter 6 helps readers get a handle on their own feelings and develop strong, supportive, and optimistic school teams to help make positive change possible. I love Springer’s reminder that optimism is a non-negotiable prerequisite for success as well as his list of the “battlefronts” against optimism. He helps team leaders watch for low sense of self-efficacy, worry about what others might think of us, blaming impulses, and other pessimistic thoughts and actions that can make it impossible to help an aggressive child.

Chapter 7: Bringing It All Together

This chapter, as promised in the title, brings all of ideas together. It offers strategies for staying on the right side of the law when working with challenging students, on how to frame your thinking such that you offer students empathy, and on how to troubleshoot plans that don’t seem to be working.

You Will Like This Book!

Springer’s tone is wonderful. This book finds the perfect balance between sharing practical, compassionate strategies with support for teachers, allowance for imperfection, and, as I already mentioned, opportunity to laugh at it all. I mean, when the chapters open with quotes from diverse voices such as Martin Luther King Jr and Ben Franklin to Dory (from Finding Nemo) and The Big Lebowski, you know the book going to be good!

I highly recommend Happy Kids Don’t Punch You in the Face to any and all educators who wish to work to help ALL students be successful in their schools. It is a nice fit with almost any positive behavior management (I know, I know, that term is out of vogue) you already have in place.

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a National Board Certified Teacher with master’s degrees in reading, library, and leadership. Her experience includes teaching learners in remote Alaskan villages, inner cities, and rural communities. She currently is a school principal, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute and blogs at Heart of the School for MiddleWeb. Her book, Working Hard, Working Happy: Cultivating a Culture of Effort and Joy in the Classroom, launched in early July.

Evidence-Based Science Activities (Grades 3-5)

Evidenced-Based Science Activities in Grades 3-5: Meeting the NGSS 
By Dr. Patrick L. Brown and Dr. James Concannon
(Routledge/Eye On Education, 2019 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Kathy Renfrew

Dr. Brown and Dr. Concannon do an excellent job beginning to tell the story of how the Next Generation Science Standards can be addressed in grade 3-5 classrooms. There are parts of this text I like as well as some parts that I am struggling with a bit.

I like the term evidence-based learning because it’s important for students to construct their explanations based on evidence from their own questions and investigations, but I am put off by the title of the book, Evidenced-Based Science Activities in Grades 3-5: Meeting the NGSS, because the new standards are asking us to move away from “activity land” which tends to be very topic based learning that occurs when students are figuring out something vs learning about something,

In Chapter 1 the authors discuss claims, evidence and reasoning, and that is a good thing. One piece that I found missing was the use of oral discourse as a strategy to help students sense-make with their peers to develop a claim that was based on evidence and included scientific reasoning.

I also noted that the Framework for K-12 Science Education was missing from the citations for this chapter. The majority of references cited for further reading are meaningful but are based on research prior to 2011. The exception to this was the 2012 article written by Kate McNeill and Joe Krajcik.

Chapter 2, although brief, is filled with important information about the how and why of science learning. The sequence of the instruction is critical. The chapter talks about “explore before explain” and “activity before content,” etc. There is also discussion about the 5E learning cycle. My thinking is that this chapter feels incomplete because it does not include phenomenon-driven instruction where student learning begins with excitement and curiosity derived from their own questions.

In Chapter 3 although the science learning is definitely steeped in inquiry, and student inquiry is at the heart of the NGSS, authors of the newer research have intentionally chosen not to use the term because of confusion in the field about what inquiry is or is not. Instead, when students are engaged in science and engineering practices, they are also engaged in the steps described in the book as inquiry.

Chapter 4, “Using Phenomenon-Based Teaching as a Pathway to Evidence-Driven Science Education,” is my favorite in the book. It digs into the pedagogy of science teaching that is expected and addressed in both the in A Framework for K-12 Science Education and the Next Generation Science Standards.

Interesting and intriguing phenomena will breed extensive student questions. From all of the student questions, a driving question is developed to begin our investigations. The driving question must be engaging and meaningful to all students, placing them in a position to investigate, collect data and construct explanations. The students “want to figure out the answer the driving questions.”

This type of science instruction makes students want to come back to your classroom every day because they cannot wait to dig in again and try to figure out exactly how that energy stick can explain transfer of energy, or how a Wooly Willy toy can help us better understand that a magnet doesn’t have to touch a material to affect it, or how to make bracelets using UV beads can help us better understand the effects of sunlight on our skin.

Chapter 5 is a brief introduction to the Next Generation Science Standards. The chapter intends to connect the way instruction has happened in the past to the way it should happen using the new standards. For me, when I think about the new science standards, the paradigm shift is more about how we teach than what we teach.

Chapter 6 invites readers into the classroom of one of the authors to see how he engages students in science and engineering practices in a manageable way. He shares how fourth and fifth graders are engaged in a three-to-four day investigation learning about forces and interactions. One component that I very much like is the idea that a written CER not only meets science standards but can also be used to address/assess literacy standards.

Chapters 7-10 provide the reader with model lessons that can give them a sense of where and how they might get started in changing science instruction in the classroom.

Chapter 11 is a reflection of the work the authors have done with teachers. The intent is to assist teachers of science to make the paradigm shift to the new standards. Changing practice is always difficult, but it can be managed.

This book is a very easy read and might be useful in changing the way science instruction happens in the classroom. There are some excellent points in the book, although I think some are still too muted. As mentioned above, the research is valuable and meaningful, but there is newer research available.

Kathy Renfrew (@krsciencelady) has been a Science Coordinator for the Vermont Agency of Education and a district-level Science Content Specialist. During her long career in education, Kathy has taught science in upper elementary and middle grades, often in rural schools with multi-level classrooms. She is an NBCT and an NGSS Curator and has been a field editor for NSTA’s Next Gen Navigator newsletter. She holds a M.Ed. in Science Education (K-8). Kathy blogs at MiddleWeb’s The Science Lady.