Monday, August 24, 2009

Abandoning AR

Like many elementary educators, I’ve lived with the Accelerated Reader (AR) program for the last decade. I’ve gone from using AR to define my reading program to using it flexibly as just one tool in my instructional toolbox. But this year I won’t be using it at all.

Because of recent changes in the way AR operates, my school has decided not to support the program. We can continue to use it until a problem arises, but there won’t be any tech support. I’ve decided to abandon it altogether and just go cold turkey into a new year without AR. Why do I feel like I’m jumping off a cliff into unknown waters, not just changing my reading program?

Tomorrow is the first day of school. I wonder what my students will think when I announce that we will not be using AR this year? I can just imagine their shocked faces. No AR???? Some will stand up and cheer, but others will feel lost without the program. I have similar mixed feelings. On the one hand, I know that the AR program does not produce joyous readers. On the other hand, I’ve found it to be a useful tool for tracking reading progress. It does get results, but at what cost? Face it - how many adults would enjoy reading if we knew we had to pass a test after finishing each book?

Luckily, I just finished reading a wonderful book called The Book Whisperer that will help me make sense of my decision to abandon AR completely. The author, Donalyn Miller, would probably be horrified that I found any value whatsoever in AR! She uses a “reading workshop” approach to deliver instruction, and passionately advocates for student choice in reading. She believes that to become better readers, students need to read more during the school day and become engaged with their texts in meaningful ways.

I guess in my heart of hearts I’ve known for a long time that AR was nothing more than a security blanket. It was an easy system for tracking progress, but it didn’t do much to foster a lifelong passion for reading. Promoting the joy of reading is a worthy goal; however, in today’s climate of accountability, it’s also important for students to perform well on standardized tests.

This year I’m on a mission to do both - promote the joy of reading AND increase reading achievement. I hope to inspire my students to grow as readers, challenging them to tackle increasingly difficult texts and a variety of genres. We’ll establish a climate where independent reading time is treasured and student choice is respected. I’ll create mini-lessons to teach skills, but mostly I’ll encourage my students to read, read, read!

AR won’t have a place in my classroom this year. It’s past time for me and my students to grow up and leave that security blanket behind!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

How to Earn 4,000 Scholastic Bonus Points

Every year I cross my fingers in August, hoping that Scholastic will repeat its back-to-school deal. This deal is so terrific that I love to share it with other teachers!

Did you know that with a little bit of know-how and persistence, you can get 4,000 Bonus Points in just a week or two? I've been able to do this every year for at least 5 years, whether I worked at a Title I school or a more affluent one. I've created a system that works every time! Read on to learn how you can do this, too!

How to Earn 4,000 Bonus Points

The Deal:
  • Put together a $200 or larger order from one catalog and you'll get 20 times the Bonus Points! With a $200 order you'll get 4,000 points.
  • The larger the order, the more points you'll get up to 10,000. Don't panic about how you'll get a $200 order when you usually can't get a $10 order! Just read on. Follow my system and you can do it! It works!

  • If you don't want to do this on your own, you can work with another teacher or your grade level. After you get the 4,000 points you can call Scholastic and have the points distributed to each person's account according to the amount their class contributed to the total.
Secrets of Success:
  • Make sure you have a Scholastic account. If you don't, go to to set one up. Then hunt around your school for a September catalog or wait for one to be mailed to you.

  • Look through the Scholastic September catalogs for the ones that offer 20X bonus points for getting a $200 order. Choose one and only one catalog. You have to get together a $200 order from one catalog to qualify, and if you send home 3 catalogs you'll never make it. Just pick the one that has the most books that would appeal to your students. Choose Lucky, Arrow, Tab, or whatever, but make sure it has the 20X bonus point offer.

  • Compose a letter to send home to parents with the order form. See the sample Scholastic Arrow Book Letter on the Teaching Resources Back to School page.

  • If you haven't set up online ordering, do that at this time. I've found that parents order more books when they are using a credit card online. Go to to set this up. Do not activate the option that gives parents 500 more book choices at this time or parents may place orders in that catalog. You want all the orders to come from the catalog you chose earlier. Write down your Class User Name and Password for reference.

  • When you give the order form out, devote some class time to discussing the books. Have the kids highlight the ones they like and allow students to tell the class about books they love. Tell them that if the class can get a $200 order, you'll be able to buy over 100 books for the classroom!

  • Distribute the letter and go over your book picks with the kids. Require them to get the letter signed by a parent even if they don't think they want to order. That way the parents will be aware of your goal and may want to help out, even if they don't usually order books.

  • Make a deal with students. If the class gets a $200 order, anyone who places an order will get a free book pick worth $3 or less from a future catalog. You can use the Scholastic Coupon on Teaching Resources to do this.

  • If you have access to a computer, demonstrate how to place an online order. That way your students can help their parents with this process. Make sure they know the Class User Name and Password.

  • As the orders come in, keep a running total on the board. Do not post individual student names and the amounts of their orders! Just announce the daily total. You can also use the Scholastic Stars $200 Countdown on Teaching Resources. Each section is worth $10, so you can color in the sections as you work to reach your goal of $200.

  • If you have a parent night or open house, put out some extra order forms and be sure to mention your class goal. If you have a copy of the Scholastic dictionary, display it. Explain why you want the bonus points - to order free books and materials for your class.

  • If the deadline passes and you are close to $200, send out another message letting parents know how close you are to the goal. If you have parent email addresses, send them a note and include a direct link to Scholastic's ordering page. You can also combine orders with another teacher to reach that goal and share the points later.

Other Strategies - Have you developed any strategies for cashing in on Scholastic's September deal? Please share your experiences!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

First Day Dilemma

Most kids would be surprised to know that teachers are every bit as nervous as they are on the first day of school! Why do we worry so much? Perhaps it’s because we know that the first day of school sets the tone for the rest of the year. We want to get it right on Day One or we may pay the price all year!

But the problem is that we hear conflicting messages about what the first day of school should look like. Veteran teachers used to tell newbies that it’s best not to smile until Christmas – that way the kids know you mean business. I don’t think anyone really believes that advice anymore, but we should we go to the other extreme? Should we seat kids in teams right away, or should they be in straight rows for the first few weeks of school? Should the first day of school be fun, or should it be a time to learn the rules and classroom procedures?

Personally, I think we can do both on the first day of school. In fact, if we want to establish a caring classroom climate, I think we must do both on the first day of school. We need to let kids know that our classroom will be a fun place to learn, but it’s also a classroom with clear rules and procedures.

One of the big considerations for the first day of school is how to seat students. Should they be seated in rows or teams? If they are in teams, should they pick their teammates?

My view is that the best way to teach kids how to work in cooperative learning teams is to start teaching them that way on the first day of school. If you put them in rows on the first day, then later when you put them in teams, your students may think it’s play time.

My kids are placed in teams from the very first day of school. When my students arrive in my classroom, they will find a nametag on an assigned seat for the first day of school. That seat will be a part of a team of four students, and we’ll begin learning appropriate ways to interact in teams. Throughout the day, we’ll do several fun team-building and class-building activities, and each time I’ll share specific procedures for movement and conversation. For the next two or three days, I will mix them up in different teams so they can get to know their classmates. Then on the third or fourth day I’ll create more permanent, mixed-ability teams. At no time do I let them pick their own teams. Sometimes they may choose a partner for an activity, but their teams are always assigned by me.

For more information on how to create mixed-ability teams, visit the Team Formation page on Teaching Resources. You can also find information and diagrams about how to arrange seating to foster cooperative learning activities.

What’s your experience with team formation? Do you like to put kids in teams on the first day of school or wait until you teach other classroom procedures? My way is just one way . . . and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.