Category Archives: Book Reviews

Professional books reviewed by educators

5 Teaching, Learning Myths “Debunked”

Five Teaching and Learning Myths Debunked: A Guide for Teachers
By Adam M. Brown and Althea Need Kaminski
(Routledge?Eye On Education, 2018 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Rita Platt

Are you a multitasker? Do you use examples to make learning more relatable? Do you teach to learning styles? Do you keep your cell phone in reach at school?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, you might be interested in Adam Brown and Althea Kamisnksi’s Five Teaching and Learning MythsDebunked. But, I am warning you – you might not like what they have to say.

The Myths

The authors take on what they believe are five myths that permeate education at all levels. They explore each, looking at the research, the specific beliefs surrounding the myths, and then they offer tools for teachers to both counter the myth and teach students using methods they say have been proven effective.

The tools are grouped into early elementary, late elementary, middle school, and high school/college applications.


Okay. this won’t surprise you. The authors say that multitasking doesn’t work. Teachers, we’ve heard it before and we’ll hear it again. When we multitask, we shortchange everything and instead of getting more bang for our buck, we end up with chump change.

But I have to tell you, as life-long multitasker who is successful both personally and professionally, I don’t care what anyone says. In fact right now I am typing this, listening to an audiobook, and painting my fingernails. So there.

To be fair, the authors are not really talking about teachers multitasking; rather, they consider how we can help students focus on one task at a time to increase and deepen learning. The tools they offer, for the most part, are designed to help students take breaks in the active learning process to filter and reflect on new learnings.


Using examples in our teaching does not help students generalize or make lessons more interesting. In fact, the research shows that when we offer examples students tend to focus on the more trivial aspects of the example – the authors call these the “seductive details” – rather than the important content we had in mind. Similarly, when we offer entertaining examples to get students excited about a topic, it can have a diminishing effect as attention is pulled from the actual learning target to the seductive details.

The tools offered here seem to conflict with the point of the chapter, as they include ideas such as using multiple examples, explaining examples, and asking for student-generated examples.


The authors are not saying focus is a myth. Rather, they are exploring common myths related to how we focus. For example, they debunk the notion that the ability to focus is a trait some are born with and some are not born with and that to focus one needs a quiet space. They share that focus can be taught and strengthened. I think most would agree that focus is a skill than can be honed. That said, as a person who has ADHD (and is medicated for it, thank you very much), I do know that there is a biological component to focus as well.

The book’s tools for focus are very similar to those in the first chapter on multitasking but also include strategies for staying on top of tasks.


This chapter, which debunks the myth that testing is bad, is not likely to surprise any working educator. The main idea: testing, when used well, can be a critical tool to improve learning. The authors stay away from the controversy of standardized tests and tests used in high-stakes ways. They focus on testing that serves to check student progress in relation to given learning targets.

The tools offered for all levels are variations on fun formative assessment strategies designed not only to help the teacher gauge learning progress but also to alleviate testing anxiety in children. I think we can all agree – assessment is and important teaching tool.

Learning Styles

For me, this chapter made the whole book worth reading! Despite the fact that the concept of “learning styles” (visual, kinesthetic, linguistic learners) has repeatedly been debunked in studies, teachers seem to be unwilling to let it go! The authors explain that learners cannot be placed neatly in any one learning style box. Further, when teachers identify students as having a preferred style and teach to it, they actually do harm.

The tools, however, do not do the topic justice. The bottom line is that lessons incorporating different ways to learn are a good thing. There should be visuals, multiple voices sharing information, texts, and movement-based learning. To that end, the authors share a smattering of inchoate suggestions for including different presentation styles but none resonate as particularly helpful for immediate implementation.

Five Teaching and Learning Myths Debunked: A Guide for Teachers is a quick read, and it is interesting enough. It might spark some productive discussion in a professional learning community looking to jettison common but misguided strategies in favor of research-based best practices. Perhaps brainstorming some other tools and resources could be part of that discussion.

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 new book, Working Hard, Working Happy: Cultivating a Culture of Effort and Joy in the Classroom, launches in early July.



Assistive Technology in Special Education

Assistive Technology in Special Education: Resources to Support Literacy, Communication, and Learning Differences, 3rd Edition
By Joan L. Green
(Prufrock Press, 2018 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Carol Willard

Understanding the complex and ever-changing world of assistive technology (AT) is a daunting task, especially for the individuals, families, and professionals concerned about maximizing the use of advances in technology to support people with learning differences who may be challenged by communication and literacy needs.

In the revised edition of Assistive Technology in Special Education: Resources to Support Literacy, Communication, and Learning Differences, 3rd Edition, Joan Green helps readers navigate this complex topic with a straightforward, organized approach to understanding and effectively implementing AT.

For readers who are less familiar with AT, the Assistive Technology Act of 2004 defines assistive technology as “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities” (29 U.S.C. Sec 2202(2)).

Meeting communication and literacy needs

Assistive Technology in Special Education focuses on the use of AT for students receiving special educational services; however, there is plenty of practical information in the text that any user of technology will find relevant and useful.

The meaningful use of AT is an important consideration for all personnel working with students with learning differences who may be challenged by communication and literacy needs.

Even as the affordability and availability of educational and personal technology tools increase, there is a risk that people who can most benefit from advances in technology may not have fair and equitable access to the effective use of AT. Therefore, as Green asserts, it is even more imperative that professionals are knowledgeable about the effective use of the varied AT tools to support greater success and independence for all individuals.

As a former special education teacher and now a teacher educator, I agree with Green; I understand the importance of having a reliable source such as this book to gain a deeper understanding of the role of AT in supporting a range of needs. In addition, this book provides an annotated list of tools, software, and apps to address specific needs and anticipated outcomes.

AT: Its terminology and possibilities

After reviewing this book, I recommend reading the first three chapters, all relatively short and reader-friendly, to gain a foundational understanding of AT, familiarity with the terminology used in this field, and an appreciation for the possibilities AT offers individuals.

Chapter 1 offers basic definitions and tips on getting started with AT. In chapter 2, Green gives an overview of the benefits of AT and describes assistive technology features in common devices many people already possess, such as read-aloud and speech-to-text features, enlarged text on screens, and recording capabilities on tablets, laptops, and smartphones. Accessing technology through various methods, such as specialized keyboards, trackballs, and switches, is covered in Chapter 3 with a thorough description of each access method and the considerations for use.

After reading the first three chapters, readers will have a good foundation of AT terminology, the potential benefits, and important considerations in making decisions to support learners. Beyond these introductory chapters, readers can  choose to review subsequent chapters that are most relevant to their interests.

Using AT technologies for specific needs

Each chapter is a stand-alone resource on specific AT technologies and commonly used digital devices, software, and apps that may be employed to support a range of needs. Chapter topics include using technology to improve verbal expression, auditory comprehension, receptive language, reading skills and comprehension, written expression and writing skills, executive functioning, and organizational skills. Green devotes other chapters to the relevant topics of digital collaboration, storage, safety, and organization.

Each chapter is organized in a consistent manner beginning with a definition and basic information about the need area, general guidelines to support continued development/learning of target skills, and the benefit and considerations of using AT to support people with this challenge.

Following this introduction, the author gives a candid review of AT tools that are frequently used including each tool’s strengths, drawbacks, cost, and contact/source information. Throughout each chapter there is an emphasis on meeting individual needs in the most efficient way possible and the importance of professional decision-making to match the use of AT with a full understanding of the areas of need. As Green asserts, “…technology does not replace [professional] expertise” (p. xv).

The comprehensive resource I’ve been searching for

I highly recommend this comprehensive yet easy-to-read resource on AT. While technology tools can evolve at a rapid pace, having a core understanding of the potential benefits of digital tools, software, and apps is important for all professionals working to fully support students with learning challenges in communication and literacy.

While the information in this book can be gathered from several other sources, mainly through online searches, I have been on a quest, with limited success, to find one reliable, easy-to-use resource on assistive technology that is comprehensive and offers a curated list of AT tools and devices that can be used for a range of need areas.

My search is over!

Dr. Carol Willard (, a special educator for over 20 years in public schools, currently is an assistant professor at the State University of New York at Oswego. She teaches in both undergraduate and graduate programs preparing teacher candidates, emphasizing the importance of relationship building and collaborative practices to meet the needs of diverse learners.


Where to Find Kids’ LGBTQAI+ Books

LGBTQAI+ Books for Children and Teens: Providing a Window for All
By Christina Dorr and Liz Deskins
(American Library Association, 2018 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Sarah Cooper

The cover of LGBTQAI+ Books for Children and Teens shouts the book’s power with an upraised hand clutching a bright yellow book.

For librarians Christina Dorr and Liz Deskins, getting the right book into the hands of the right kid at the right time is paramount – even more so when the topic is something not everyone wants to talk about.

This concise guide, published by the American Library Association, feels like a warm companion for teachers, parents and librarians to find story-changing and life-affirming books.

In addition, LGBTQAI+ Books argues that librarians can’t justify not including such titles in their collections simply because students don’t ask, or because the books don’t seem to circulate, or because a community challenge is likely. Throughout, it reminds us that librarians often step in as first-line defenders of intellectual freedom. The epilogue is titled “It’s about Basic Human Rights,” and this anti-censorship theme recurs throughout.

Where to Start

The book begins with a powerful personal story by Jamie Campbell Naidoo, past president of the Association for Library Service to Children. The authors then discuss justifications for circulating LGBTQAI+ literature to children and teens, a brief history of such literature, approaches to “dealing with objections,” and helpful vocabulary. LGBTQAI+ in the title refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, asexual, intersex and more.

Attempting from the outset to defuse concerns, the authors point out: “We no longer hesitate to share books about other forms of diversity: race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, age, language, women’s issues, and more. Why are we still hesitant to share books about sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and nontraditional family structures with all children?”

The rest of the guide divides into three sections, focused on young, middle grade and teen readers.

For the Littlest Kids

In a preface to the young readers’ section – focusing on babies and children – the authors insist that “all family structures need to be validated” and that “children become aware of gender identity/expression at a very young age.”

I found myself taking note of many of the titles, particularly Stonewall Honor Books, to recommend to new parents. I also appreciated, in this section and throughout, the weaving of classics, such as Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers and Marla Frazee, with newer titles, such as Baby’s First Words by Christiane Engel.

The historical fiction and information section also featured books about everyone from author Gertrude Stein to artist Keith Haring to tennis greats Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert.

For Tweens and Middle Grades  

The second section pinpoints the essential balancing act of middle schoolers: to “cling to the support of the family, while simultaneously pushing authority figures away as they begin to think for themselves and develop an independent sense of self.” 

I enjoyed this section’s broad landscape of titles, from the graphic novel Drama by Raina Telgemeier to Who Is Elton John? by Kirsten Anderson. It also includes the Magnus Chase series by Rick Riordan as a wildly popular set of books that incorporate gender fluidity.

With both the middle and high school chapters, the authors acknowledge that “there’s a preponderance of realistic fiction,” appropriate to readers’ search for identity. 

For Teens and High School

Older teens, the authors point out, “need tools for guidance: family, friends, teachers, counselors, and books,” all of which can provide “a sense of safety,” “the need for respect,” and “a sense of fairness and justice.”

Happily, as you may have noticed with YA literature over the past five or ten years, “the wealth of LGBTQAI+ books that explore every facet of identity and relationship is exploding,” and this chapter gives a fabulous starting point with its three dozen titles.

I had read a handful of them already – interestingly, all because of repeated and impassioned student recommendations – including John Corey Whaley’s Highly Illogical Behavior, Benjamin Alire Saenz’s The Inexplicable Logic of My Life, Emily M. Danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat, which “shattered concepts of what a young adult title could be” when it appeared in 1989.

Now I want to work my way through the entire chapter. And if another edition comes out in the future, I would suggest adding Brandy Colbert’s Little & Lion and Amy Ellis Nutt’s Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family.

Let’s Get This Book into the Right Hands

Who would benefit from this book? Obviously librarians, both those facing challenges and those free to develop a collection without restraint. Teachers, for sure, who want to stock their classroom libraries with books from a diversity of perspectives and who, like me, want to amp up their YA reading lists. Even parents, including those who would like a book they can consult as their kids grow up and have new questions.

In their endnote, Dorr and Deskins focus on the children, young adolescents and teens who should occupy the center of the discussion: “Whatever our beliefs, values, religions, political stances, we aren’t the important piece of the equation – the child is. We need to step back, evaluate the child’s needs, and provide the resources and opportunities to allow the child to learn, question, and grow while encouraging others outside the LGBTQAI+ community to understand and develop empathy.”

Sarah Cooper teaches eighth-grade U.S. history and is dean of studies at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, California, where she has also taught English Language Arts. She is the author of Making History Mine (Stenhouse, 2009) and Creating Citizens: Teaching Civics and Current Events in the History Classroom (Routledge/MiddleWeb, 2017). She presents at conferences and writes for a variety of educational sites. You can find all of Sarah’s writing at


ADHD Challenges: Focus on Strengths & Potential

The ADHD Empowerment Guide: Identifying Your Child’s Strengths and Unlocking Potential
By James W. Forgan, PhD, and Mary Anne Richey
(Prufrock Press, 2019 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Joanne Bell

Since starting my new website, Thinking Through ADHD, I have been involved with tons of research dealing with the subject. Most of what I find addresses the problems and comorbidities that are encountered.

When I saw The ADHD Empowerment Guide that talked about a child’s strengths and potential, I felt that I had to grab it.

The first chapter is entitled “Success with ADHD,” and one of the first things that caught my eye was this thought:

“When your child understands her strengths and knows how to use them to her advantage or to bypass weaknesses, your child feels more confident and successful.”(p.18)

By looking at personal strengths as well as weaknesses, we can help our children and teens develop strategies to deal with the latter while utilizing the former. Perspective is important here. Every situation should be looked at as an opportunity, not just a problem. This idea seems to be what this book is all about.

The authors suggest finding these strengths and weaknesses via multiple intelligence profiles and a Keys to Success Survey.

Understanding multiple intelligences

There are many ways to help our children/teens unlock their potential, but it all starts by examining a theory of Howard Gardner. This theory is called Multiple Intelligences because Gardner believed that everyone is more than just one IQ score. We all have a variety of talents and traits.

But multiple intelligence profiles do more than highlight gifts; they can also shine a light on weaknesses. In chapter 3 Forgan and Richey explain each kind of intelligence with examples and give activities to strengthen these areas if they are found to be weak.

Chapter 4 explains the Keys to Success, mentioned above as one of the tools we can use to figure out our students’ gifts and weaknesses. The authors describe and explain aspects of behavior and thought that can limit or assist us all to reach to our goals successfully. Many have to do with executive functioning skills.

The authors also explore eleven traits associated with ADHD, giving background information, strategies for strengthening them, and resources that could help, such as stories to read and book suggestions for adults. Also included for each are possible careers and examples of people who have overcome the difficulty.

Treatment and resources

Medication and questions about its use is first in the lineup of Treatments for Success, which is the focus of chapter 5. Also included are some of the recent additions to the pharmaceutical market. Behavioral and therapeutic treatments are discussed along with neurofeedback, mindfulness and food-based treatments. This chapter ends with information on ADHD coaching and video coaching.

The remaining chapters focus on Understanding Your Rights in chapter 6, Finding the Right Fit (in a school) in chapter 7, and The Success Plan, which shows you how to put it all together, in Chapter 8. Forgan and Richey close with a load of references as well as a PDF link for their Multiple Intelligences Profile and Keys to Success survey.

The ADHD Empowerment Guide is a fabulous find for anyone who deals with children or teens with ADHD, but I can think of many more students that these ideas would help outside the ADHD diagnosis. I love this more positive approach!

Joanne Bell is a middle school teacher at St. Joseph Elementary School in Cottleville, Missouri. She currently teaches social studies to sixth and seventh graders and is working on a blog about ADHD, Thinking Through ADHD.


Literacy and Learning Centers for the Big Kids

Literacy and Learning Centers for the Big Kids: Building Literacy Skills and Content Knowledge, grades 4-12
By Katherine S. McKnight, PhD
(Engaging Learners, LLC, 2017 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Janice Rustico

Literacy and Learning Centers for the Big Kids: Building Literacy Skills and Content Knowledge, grades 4-12 is a book I have been waiting for. Most books and articles I have read have been geared towards elementary school teachers and do not always have the tools to meet the needs of the middle schooler.

I have always read through these books and articles and thought, No, this won’t work in our classrooms, or, Maybe I can take this idea and tweak it for our students. Middle and high school teachers – tweak no more!

This book takes us from the beginning of the process, asking in chapter one “Why Should We Use Centers for the Big Kids?”, to the appendix which has supports, including appropriate books for various topics, more advice, posters, and other extremely useful resources.

In between, the book is filled with excellent tips, templates, and examples to help anyone navigate the challenging waters of learning centers in the upper grades. Not only does Dr. McKnight discuss Learning Centers for language arts, but for all academic subjects.

Fitting assessment into learning centers

Teachers often struggle with the assessment piece of Centers. This is where I usually have the most pushback from teachers. They need grades in their gradebooks, and I totally understand this pressure.

The author talks about the importance of setting goals and making sure students understand these goals by articulating them clearly, and then giving students the tools to achieve them and allowing them the time to practice. The author describes in detail how to assess students.

According to McKnight, formative assessments have four distinct attributes:

  • Learning Progressions
  • Learning Goals and Criteria for Success
  • Descriptive Feedback
  • Collaboration

She goes on to clearly explain and give examples for each attribute, talks about how to give descriptive feedback, and also discusses connecting the standards to the assessments.

When I turned to the resources at the end of the book, I went onto one of her suggested websites and found some excellent ideas that I immediately shared with all of the teachers in my school. I cannot wait to dive further into these links!

A helpful guide to improving learning centers

I have been using Center work this past year with two of my social studies teachers, but we were learning as we navigated this process.  Now that I’ve read Literacy and Learning Centers for the Big Kids, I have many more ideas for improvement to share with my colleagues. I’ll also be recommended this book to them.

Next year will be even better with this book as our guide. My toolkit is filling up with many more ideas on how to structure centers plus ideas for posters, graphic organizers and much more. This is a book that middle and high school teachers definitely need if they want to explore the potential of learning centers!

Janice Rustico was a middle school language arts teacher for 13 years before becoming a literacy coach. Currently she partners with language arts and social studies teachers for literacy and instructional improvement. She resides in Connecticut.


Beyond the Tyranny of History Textbooks

Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited About Doing History, 2nd edition
By James W. Loewen
(Teachers College Press, 2018 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Michael DiClemente

I first became familiar with James W. Loewen when a local used bookstore invited teachers from the area to come in for free books. They were cleaning house and I was happy to help.

The title Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong nearly leapt right out at me.

At that time I was new to teaching middle school ancient history, relying on the textbook and the materials that came with it. It was funny to me as I read the title because I had a master’s degree in history and hadn’t used a single textbook to conduct research, and now I was really intrigued to read this.

That first year I read all I could get my hands on about how to teach history at the K-12 level. I loved history, the research, and acting like a detective piecing the evidence together. This is what I wanted to pass on to my students: curiosity about history, not some watered down, at times incorrect version of events. Students always seem to want to know the “right” answer, and I try to explain that sometimes there is no such thing.

As I fast forward to present day, I have changed how I teach my class and have read quite a bit more on teaching history. I had a previous edition of Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited About Doing History but was excited to see a new edition ready for review.

Loewen’s focus here is on American history, but there is still so much for teachers like me who are not teaching American history. I will focus this review on the elements that I think are useful for all K-12 history teachers.

“The Tyranny of Coverage”

Chapter 1 of the book discusses coverage and should be required reading for any person preparing to teach history. We have all been at department meetings or discussions with colleagues where “how do we cover all this?” is a question met with various lamentations on the impossibility of getting through all the material.

Loewen provides a great strategy by way of metaphor. Imagine a forest representing, for me, ancient civilizations. How can I organize all this into a meaningful school year for my students? Loewen says do not concentrate on the twigs, all the facts and dates that amount to nothing more than rote memorization. Loewen writes on page 23, “Unfortunately, the more teachers cover, the less kids remember.”

The teacher, instead, should compile a list of 30-50 topics to be covered during the year – these are the trees. Do not be hasty in making this list, sleep on it, and be sure it represents the crucial aspects of your content area and any standards you follow.

As history teachers our job is two-fold: teaching the content of the past and teaching students important skills along the way. Loewen has a great list of skills on page 33 (you’ll have to get the book) and how they can be incorporated into a course.

Lessons should be planned with both content and skills in mind. When considering content, Loewen notes not to be afraid of teaching what actually happened (rather than history’s myths). The past is complicated and can be messy.

“The critical point is this: Once teachers step forth down this slippery slope of allowing such concerns to dictate what can and cannot be learned about the past, regardless of what actually happened, they are done for. Teaching what happened is our bedrock. When challenged by student, parent, or administrator, noting that students are learning what in fact happened is a powerful first defense.” (Page 41)

We would be lying to ourselves if we didn’t at some point become frustrated with a lack of background knowledge or skills that a student possesses. That doesn’t mean you take it out on the student, but it is an internal frustration because now the lesson you have planned may be thwarted to some degree.

Loewen provides good general education advice as we deal with this. One great piece of insight from page 49 is that before a student can do well, she has to believe she can do well, and sometime before that her teacher needs to believe she can do well. Whether or not students are confident learners, they may simply not have been taught to do certain things and that ignorance should not be held against them.

Becoming Historians

When I was in graduate school, I remember seeing the word “historiography” and I was intimidated. I did not know what to make of this word. It took me some time to realize I was doing this and I understood what it meant.

Loewen encourages history teachers to scrutinize history, and how events are recorded and understood, and how this changes over time. This is an imperative step in truly understanding the past. Loewen states on page 76, “What happened in 1492 happened. But that is not history. History is what we say happened. What we say about 1492 changes as we change. Historiography is the study of why and how history changes.”

In order to provide what Loewen recommends above, a history teacher must go beyond the textbook. You will read in Loewen’s book how history is recorded in textbooks and why, in many cases, it can be wrong or oversimplified. “The most pervasive reason why textbooks supply bad history is that they simply don’t want to offend.” (Page 85)

As history teachers, like those in any other subject, we should not be teaching or discussing content we know to be untrue. Doing this is an incredible disservice to our students. There are ways to simplify and summarize without eliminating the truth. Lowen gives some excellent examples of textbooks purposefully giving wrong information. This can be through elimination or embellishment. For instance, I learned a lot about Franklin Pierce and how some textbooks changed his history to make him look better.


“Teachers of history might think it’s not their job to discuss current events, since they have not yet receded into history, but who else should do it? The chemistry teacher? Moreover, current events are caused by events and processes in the past, and as we have noted, the point of teaching history is to help students understand causation so they can apply the past to the present.” (Page 113)

This section is the biggest addition to the new edition of this book. Because we are in an ever-changing world in which terms like “truth” and “facts” can have alternative meanings, it is so important for us to teach students to be critical citizens.

This chapter offers great strategies on how to teach students to assess the credibility of sources. It also has a section on analyzing sources, endnotes and footnotes. The point is to make sure students are equipped to look beyond the face-value of the source. Loewen contends that we will be pleasantly surprised if we encourage our students to question sources and allow them to enter the world of rigorous historical thought.

“Teaching the truth inherently respects students. They respond to that respect by being worthy of it.” (Page 124)


In this review I focused on certain parts of the book that I feel can apply to teachers of all areas of history. As an ancient history teacher I found an excellent chapter that discussed archaeological and geological evidence that I will be incorporating into my class.

There is plenty for teachers of American history, including local monuments, that is very eye-opening. There is also a chapter describing why we have a Eurocentric view of history. If for no other reason than you feel your class is getting stale – or you find you need a fresh transfusion of teaching energy – this book is for you. It may seem daunting to approach students as budding historians, but it can be a powerful engagement strategy.

Keep in mind Loewen’s observation that while teachers do not always need to be experts, “The more teachers know, however, the better they can guide their charges.” (Page 129)

Michael DiClemente is a sixth grade ancient civilizations teacher in Medford, MA.  Michael also advises the Middle School Model UN Club and runs the eighth grade trip to New York City.  Michael is a mentor and New Teacher Liaison in his district and enjoys working with new teachers. He is a graduate of the 2018 Teacher Leadership Institute cohort.

How Writing Workshop Can Engage Students

Welcome to Writing Workshop: Engaging Today’s Students with a Model That Works
By Stacey Shubitz and Lynne R. Dorfman
(Stenhouse, 2019 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Linda Biondi

I had tears in my eyes as I began to read Welcome to Writing Workshop: Engaging Today’s Students with a Model That Works by Stacey Shubitz and Lynne R. Dorfman. My first thought was “This is the way writing workshop should be taught! Putting our students first!” My next thought was “Where was this book years ago?”

As teachers, we know that books have the potential to open minds to many possibilities. Books can swell our hearts, plant seeds for thought, inspire us, motivate us, change lives. Shubitz and Dorfman have outdone themselves. They have written a book that will inspire teachers for a generation to come.

Teaching writing workshop was one of my favorite things to do as an elementary school teacher. I loved when the students begged for more time to write. I’ll never forget the time that Stephen took home his Writers Notebook and asked his parents and little sister to write in their own Writers Notebook (true story).

This literacy guide will enable educators to teach Writing Workshop in a way that will inspire students to have that innate desire to write. It can also empower teachers to help colleagues teach Writing Workshop “the right way.”

Research, experience and insight

Each page in this marvelous book is jam-packed with words of wisdom collected from years of experience, data, research and insight. “Building a writing community starts in September, but sustaining the community is a yearlong effort.” (p. 41) Absolutely! But how do you do it when you need to complete your SGO (Student Growth Objective), write lesson plans, monitor standardized testing, attend workshops, reflect on your teaching, gather data, and deal with a severe lack of sleep?

What exactly is Writing Workshop? “The structure for writing workshop is simple: it is student centered and based on the belief that students become successful writers when they write frequently for extended periods of time, and on topics of their choice.”

The book’s ten sections

• What writing workshop is all about and the verbiage associated with it.
• What writing workshop looks like: structure, environment, furniture, seating, anchor charts.
• How to build a community of writers.
• Procedures and routines.
• How to manage whole class instruction.
• How to build independent writing time into your daily schedule.
• Conferring to individualize instruction, build community and set goals.
• Types of small group instruction and how they work.
• Sharing time in the workshop model.
• How instruction in grammar, conventions, and spelling works within the workshop model.

Of particular note is the authors’ point that establishing a writing workshop begins with what we do to make our students feel safe and secure in the classroom. Think about it. You can’t share your world and inner emotions, and have others look into your writer’s soul, unless you feel comfortable and secure. Shubitz and Dorfman share strategies that invite students to discover who they are as writers and learn ways to improve as a listener inside the workshop model.

I loved the strategies included throughout such as “Introduce them to many genres and a wide range of mentor texts.” That range might include:

  • Poems
  • Song lyrics, book and movie reviews, how-to manuals
  • Advertisements
  • Travel guides
  • Letters
  • Web pages
  • Riddles
  • Comic strips
  • Birthday cards (and other celebratory cards)
  • Notes from friends

Multimedia ideas from teachers

It’s not just the authors who share their research, strategies, and thoughts. Many of the ideas are supported by teachers who are currently teaching writing and who share their joys and frustrations. Practical ideas come from teachers who collaborate to be the best writing teachers that they can be.

Included throughout the book is access to short video clips from teachers who want to help you as you continue your search to inspire young writers. (For example, The Social-Emotional Environment Begins with the Teacher, Frank Murphy, sixth grade teacher, p. 24.)

You can’t imagine the number of photos, anchor charts, and forms that are interspersed throughout that will inspire you. They accompany the 206 pages of information written in a style that will make you feel as if you are talking to a colleague about the teaching of writing. It’s like sitting in on a conversation with a friendly, knowledgeable mentor.

We want our students to have an innate desire to write. When our students were small, they were so excited to show off their writing, even if it was scribbles. They wrote everywhere and anywhere. We want that passion to come back and stay in their lives.

I never thought I’d recommend that the reader of a professional book make sure that a smartphone or tablet was sitting next to them, but with this book, I definitely would recommend it. Stop, look, and listen. The book is jammed full of QR codes and internet links of online guides that you can download, video clips of teachers in action, and freebies such as downloadable examples of all types of writing.

Fresh ideas based in accepted practices

Sometimes you think that anything and everything that can be said about writing workshop has already been written, but this is not true. This book has reaffirmed what I knew, opened my eyes to new ideas, supported important theories about writing, and made me want to learn more about the teaching of writing.

This book grants the teacher reader the power to become a teacher of writing and also allows the teacher to develop research-based lessons that build on their students’ needs and not a scripted curriculum. It’s a book that will have many dog-eared pages, post-its sticking out, and highlighted sections!

It’s a book that I will definitely be recommending to administrators, college professors, and colleagues (upper grades can scaffold the work for older students with relative ease). Welcome to Writing Workshop: Engaging Today’s Students with a Model That Works is going to be a best seller, if it isn’t already. It is the writing teacher’s new best friend.


After teaching fourth graders for many years, Linda Biondi is supervising preservice and student teachers at The College of New Jersey and Rider University. Last summer she co-facilitated a week-long writing institute in conjunction with the National Writing Project at Rider University. She volunteers for two service organizations: Homefront and Dress for Success of Central New Jersey – both have a mission to end poverty and homelessness. The mission of Dress for Success is to empower women to achieve through economic independence.



Empower Students to Own Their Learning

Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning
By John Spencer and AJ Juliani
(IMPress, 2017 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Laura Von Staden

In this fun and easy-to-read book John Spencer and AJ Juliani guide us on a journey to move our students from compliance to empowerment.

If you are one of those readers who usually skips the Foreword, don’t miss this one. This section is an in-depth start to the book – at 47 pages, it’s longer than any other section of the book and contains the foundation for our empowering work.

The authors make the argument that we have moved away from an industrial age in which following the rules and doing well in school guaranteed a good job for life (regardless if that job inspired you and was fulfilling or not). Now hard work (and good grades) alone don’t guarantee success, and the only certainty in the future is uncertainty and the constant need for adaptability.

Preparing students for their future

They further point out that it is not possible (or desirable) to teach all the “knowledge” that we have available or that an individual might be likely to need in their future.

Instead teaching students the skills to seek out, evaluate and use knowledge and empowering them to drive their own learning journey will more likely produce successful, passionate, lifelong learners who may change our world.

Spencer and Juliani are forthright about mission: Our students will need to be self-directed, self-managed, creative risk-takers with an entrepreneurial attitude, and it is our job to prepare them for that future.

Throughout this book the authors provide us with the underpinnings to do the job of empowering our students to chart their own educational journeys and move them into their individual futures. It’s not a fantasy – the authors realistically discuss the possible obstacles to moving to an empowered classroom, including students not being ready to plot their own educational journeys, and give us ideas on how to get them there.

They also remind us that none of us is “average” and that, just like the Air Force discovered about cockpits, we won’t have success until we make our lessons and our classrooms more adjustable for the individual user.

Questions to consider, steps to take

The authors give many guiding questions and simple steps to take on our journey toward an empowered classroom, to help our students make the mindshift from doing school to learning, to make failing (not failure) a normal part of the process, and to teach students how to assess themselves and their peers. We must give students choice and voice, they insist, and we must instill in them that when they choose to stay silent they rob the world of their creativity.

Empower shows us how to prepare our students to be the self-directed, self-managed, creative risk-takers who can become successful. This is the teacher that I aspire to be, to prepare students to be successful in an uncertain world filled with problems for them to solve. After reading this book, I feel that I can be a more empowering teacher. This is a definite read: get this one, and don’t skip the Foreword!

Dr. Laura Von Staden is currently a Middle School Gifted Math and Science teacher in Tampa, Florida. She serves on numerous committees in her school district, works closely with the local university, and writes curriculum. She is also a professional development consultant and previously served as an Exceptional Student Education Specialist and as a mentor.


How Many? Expand Kids’ Thinking about Math

How Many? A Counting Book
By Christopher Danielson
(Stenhouse, 2018 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Linda Biondi

How Many? A Counting Book by Christopher Danielson is a bundle (student/teacher versions) that teaches students to expand their thinking about numbers.

Before you say, “Not another counting book,” let me tell you that this book and the accompanying teacher’s guide is not your traditional counting book. The format and premise is deceptively simple, but it’s rated for grades K-12 for a reason! (If you’ve seen Danielson’s shape book you’re probably a believer.)

Children are curious about the world. They want to make sense of everything around them. Anyone who has worked with young people knows they certainly don’t settle for simple answers and generally challenge what you tell them. Which is good – it helps them develop their thinking skills.

Likewise, we can push them to widen and deepen their perceptions – and this book is a perfect vehicle for that. When we guide our students to engage with math, we help them think creatively and become curious mathematicians.

How Many? A Counting Book is all about thinking, reasoning, wondering, and asking. It is unlike most traditional counting books that ask you to count specific items on a page. (1,2,3,4…) There is a counting task on every page of the book, but the author doesn’t specify what or how to count the objects.

The book begins with a pair of shoes. When you think of a pair of shoes, you think of the number “2”. If you take another look at the shoes on the page, you will see many ways to explore the number. Eyelets, laces, ends of shoelaces, cushions in the sole, stitching, sides of the box, holes in very worn shoes.

Turn the pages in Danielson’s student book and you will see more thought-provoking photos such as a bowl of fruit or an assortment of pizzas, along with the prompt “How many?” At first glance, you think the answer is quite easy until you realize the answers are almost endless. The photographs are vividly presented, with lots of everyday objects, including eggs, avocados, and grapefruit. (Actually, the book made me hungry!)

Learning from the teacher’s guide

As I read the teacher’s guide, I became more aware of the importance of counting and thinking. Danielson’s book is founded on current mathematical thinking and research. His work is based on experiences in the classroom and with his own children. Anecdotes about his children and students he has worked with flavor the book. He is a teacher, parent, researcher, and lover of math.

Our children need to count and organize their thinking about collections in a way that makes sense to them, and reading this fabulous book alongside a child or letting them read and ponder the pages is critical to their mathematical thinking development. As children (and adults) are reading the book, they will notice novel patterns and relationships.

The Teacher’s Bundle is an absolute bargain. Not only does it include an accompanying Teacher’s Guide, but after you purchase the bundle, you will have access to the digital format of the student version. Teachers can project the pages on a whiteboard or Smartboard and invite classroom conversations to take place.

The teacher’s guide is not a set of lessons or unit of study, but a glimpse into possible questions students might pose while exploring the book.

Taking the book to class

This book is an absolute treasure. It can be used for whole class instruction, small group, partner work, and independent work, in a classroom library, as an interactive bulletin board, or as a way to bridge the conversation about math during Back to School or Parents’ Night.

The possibilities for use of this book are endless. You can talk about patterns, quantities, shapes, spatial relationships, counting, units, grouping, place value, and vocabulary. Sit back and listen to your child or students talk math, develop questioning skills, and use descriptive mathematical language.  Sit back and watch them blossom into mathematicians.

Chapter 1: Why Another Counting Book? (An honest explanation of the purpose of the book)

Chapter 2: Number learning (Research about children and how they learn about number structure and place values)

Chapter 3: How to Use How Many? In Your Classroom (Strategies to use in the classroom and how to build your own image library)

Chapter 4: Children Are Brilliant Mathematicians (Conversations from actual classrooms where this book has been used)

Chapter 5: Answers Key (Possible answers to the questions “How Many?” on each page)

Using recommended online links

As you read the student’s book and follow up with reading the teacher’s guide, you will feel a need to continue your own exploration of math conversations. Some of the resources that Danielson recommends are:

  • His blog Talking Math with Your Kids ( which has articles and conversations centering on “How many?” (Type “How Many?” into the search box on the blog and your will be mesmerized with the conversations Danielson shares.
  • The website: Number Talk Images (, a collection of images that can be used to begin mathematical conversations. The collection is astounding.
  • Twitter: #unitchat is a collection of images and conversations from educators around the world, including photos, videos and news articles that feature numbers

How Many? A Counting Book is a book that will not sit very long on a bookshelf. If you want your students to fine tune their observation, discrimination, and visual analysis skills, this book is for you!

Now retired from teaching fourth graders, Linda Biondi is supervising preservice and student teachers at The College of New Jersey and Rider University. Last summer she co-facilitated a week-long writing institute in conjunction with the National Writing Project at Rider University. She volunteers for two service organizations: Homefront and Dress for Success of Central New Jersey – both have a mission to end poverty and homelessness. The mission of Dress for Success is to empower women to achieve through economic independence.


Lessons to Power Up Your Super Spellers

Super Spellers Starter Sets
By Mark Weakland
(Stenhouse Publishers, 2019 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Kathleen Palmieri

Last year I reviewed Super Spellers: Seven Steps to Transforming Your Spelling Instruction by Mark Weakland. In this book, Weakland presents a transformative way to teach spelling using a developmental approach that provides students with strategies and tools to become proficient spellers.

Rather than memorizing a list of words, students learn to use strategies to notice patterns, think about meaning, listen for sounds, and apply letters to sounds. The overarching idea is that teaching spelling (not just learning word lists) helps to increase reading and writing skills. I quickly put Weakland’s ideas to work with my fifth graders with good results.

In his latest book, Super Spellers Starter Sets, Weakland provides a classroom resource to support his principles. It is important to note that this resource is not based on a scope or sequence from any particular spelling program. The idea is that spelling should not simply be a list of words to know for a test, rather spelling should be a learned skill.

What’s in the latest book

Weakland provides lesson sets (and related tools and activities) in grade bands 1-3 and 3-5. Each lesson set contains a focus for the week (or instructional cycle), options for skill review and reteaching, a master list of words for word study activities and differentiated word lists..

A pre-test can be given to help determine what students know so you can create differentiated groups and a post-test is provided to formatively assess. Also included is a blackline master of word cards for word-sorting activities, word ladders, and suggestions for language to use during word and sentence dictation activities.

The lesson sets provide a start to help teachers internalize the lesson components in order to eventually create their own additional lesson sets for any spelling feature or convention. Using Weakland’s first book, Super Spellers: Seven Steps to Transforming Your Spelling Instruction, along with this resource is useful as teachers can delve deeper into the ideas, strategies and activities that are included.

Super Spellers in grades 4-5 and beyond

I agree with the philosophy of spelling being a critical part of reading and writing instruction. As readers, it is important for students to have a set of strategies to use authentically when they come across an unknown word in their reading.

In the upper grades, Weakland points out, “affixes and Greek and Latin roots take center stage. It’s at this point that teaching students to pay attention to meaning really pays off.” (p.24) Weakland’s advice about teaching students to “think about meaning” made me recall my own recent lesson on words ending in “phone” and “graph”.

Some of my fifth grade students were having trouble understanding the meaning of words with these endings until we took time to look closely at examples such as “homograph” and “homophone” and broke down each word noticing similarity and difference.

Breaking down word meanings then led to brainstorming examples of words to categorize. For example,”homo-” comes from the Greek word homós which means “one and the same.” So all of the “homo-” words describe some type of sameness. Then we looked to the difference in each word to find meaning: “phone” comes from the Greek word phōnḗ meaning “voice”and “graph” comes from the Greek word meaning “drawn or written.”

Breaking down the word parts helped my students understand the meaning and spell the words correctly. Moving further into the lesson, the students came up with examples that illustrated a “homophone” and a “homograph.” In the case of “homophones” we looked for words that sound the same but have different meanings, including there, their, they’re. For “homographs” (words that have the same written form but different meanings) we came up with examples such as bear, an animal, and bear, to carry or support.

Both books are easy to use

Using strategies to help students learn – not just memorize – spelling is essential to greater reading comprehension and more depth in writing. This is one of several useful strategies Weakland offers throughout the book.

This classroom resource provides strategies and materials that are easy to use. I would recommend using both Super Spellers: Seven Steps to Transforming Your Spelling Instruction and Super Spellers Starter Sets by Mark Weakland. By incorporating the components from the provided lesson sets to create your own targeted lessons you will boost students reading and writing skills without the drill and kill of traditional “spelling list” methods.

Kathleen Palmieri is a fifth grade teacher in upstate New York who reviews regularly for MiddleWeb. With a passion for literacy and learning in the classroom, she participates in various writing workshops and curriculum writing endeavors. As a lifelong learner, she is an avid reader and researcher of educational practices and techniques. Collaborating with colleagues and globally on Twitter @Kathie042500 is an ongoing practice.