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Finding Education Innovation, Town by Town


Finding Education Innovation, Town by Town

Duncan's bus tour uncovers a rural gem. 

by Wayne D'Orio

WILLIAMSFIELD, ILLINOIS—Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been doing back-to-school bus tours for six years, taking him from one end of the country to another. But it’s unlikely he ever got the question he faced when his bus pulled into Williamsfield, Illinois, last week.

“Did your bus clear the bridge?” Superintendent Tim Farquer asked him. Duncan’s trip to rural Williamsfield, population 600, might have involved the smallest town he’s ever visited. “This is a town I would normally not get to spend time in,” he admitted.

What brought Duncan and his Ready for Success bus to this rural corner of Illinois was nothing less than the future of education. Williamsfield, which boasts a one-story school that houses all 300 of the town’s students, from PreK to grade 12, has eschewed textbooks in favor of open educational resources.

The district started to make the switch two years ago when leaders considered buying a new math textbook. Instead, they decided to invest in Chromebooks and search for online resources. Initially, teachers struggled with bandwidth issues and finding reliable material. Illinois’s OER website helped by not only rating content but also by showing how it relates to state standards, and bandwidth issues have been resolved.

“This is remarkable to see a town of 600 literally leading the country where they need to go,” Duncan said. “This is a really big deal.”

At other stops on the trip, Duncan learned how Grand Rapids, Iowa, teachers are taking on various leadership roles and creating an innovative teacher-coaching program. And in Des Moines, Duncan’s boss, President Obama, joined the secretary for a town hall meeting on college affordability. Taking questions for more than an hour at North High School, Obama said, “Higher education has never been more important, but it’s never been more expensive. No young person should be priced out of college.” He detailed the government’s new website, Collegescorecard.ed.gov, which allows students and parents to compare the country’s 7,000 higher education institutions on factors such as cost, graduation rates, and average graduate salaries. 


Photo: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan during a panel discussion in Williamsfield, Illinois.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Education 

Top 5 Reasons to Transition to Digital History Textbooks


Top 5 Reasons to Transition to Digital History Textbooks

From updated materials to flipped learning, the advantages are obvious.
By Kelly Glos

Today’s students are digital natives; they don’t do analog. How can we expect to engage them with a textbook when they can use the Internet to find answers in a matter of seconds? In my district, when confronting the need for new history textbooks, we realized it was time for a new approach. We decided to make a completely digital switch by using ABC-CLIO Solutions, and the benefits have far outweighed any of our initial concerns. For those on the fence about making a similar switch, I’ve outlined five key reasons to embrace digital textbooks for history courses.

1. Timely Updates

Printed materials can’t keep pace with our rapidly changing world. New discoveries are made daily, students are witnessing important events in real time, and educators can’t wait for textbooks to catch up. In a digital environment, online textbooks can be updated with new insights and research as soon as they are published and approved. Current events can be juxtaposed with events of the past. Teachers have the freedom and flexibility to update their lessons to reflect what is happening in the world outside the classroom.

In addition, digital teaching materials can easily be updated to reflect the latest curriculum standards. This ensures that teachers always have the proper resources for their instruction.

2. Primary Sources

One of the biggest obstacles to connecting with students is trying to persuade them that the Internet isn't the answer to everything. When researching a paper, or simply trying to find an answer to a question, the first search result isn't always the best. And with Internet searches generating millions of results in some cases, it’s difficult for students to determine which answers to trust.

Online textbooks that contain primary sources have the added benefit of being vetted by experts so students learn how to identify a reputable source. By building these skills in an inclusive environment provided by the online textbook platform, students develop the skills to recognize legitimate scholarly sources outside of it.

 3. Multimedia Resources

Well-produced multimedia resources are engaging. Video, text-to-speech functionality, and audio clips all help students take different approaches to learning. An educator can have students read from their textbook and then watch a video about the topic, but online textbooks put everything in one place. Video and audio are embedded alongside the text to provide a fluid learning experience. This keeps students more engaged, and enlivens long reading assignments. It also helps break down complex topics, making them easier to understand.

4. Multiple Perspectives

History is a challenging subject. More than just dates and famous figures, it’s about understanding why notable events happened, and how and why particular players were involved. Too many textbooks present a one-sided view of history. Students need to learn how to formulate and support arguments, and they can do that only if they are exposed to different ideas. With digital textbooks, there’s ample opportunity to see opposing viewpoints side by side, to understand every angle of a historical event, providing a catalyst for productive class discussion. After presenting different perspectives, educators can ask students to choose sides and support their position with evidence. This helps develop critical-thinking and research skills.

 5. Blended or Flipped Learning

Since digital textbooks live online, students can log in anywhere, anytime to access materials, helping educators facilitate blended and flipped learning models. Teachers can have students review materials at home, so they come prepared to discuss topics in class. By learning the basic knowledge at home on their own, students can spend more time working with educators in class to probe the deeper nuance of the course materials and debate their implications.

Kelly Glos is the supervisor of secondary social studies at Lewisville Independent School District in Lewisville, Texas. Her district implemented ABC-CLIO Solutions as part of its new social studies curriculum. 

Photo: Adam Crowley/Blend ImagesMedia Bakery

Obama and Duncan in the Heartland

Obama and Duncan in the Heartland

The president talks about college affordability—and a little politics. By Wayne D’Orio

DES MOINES—President Barack Obama was in Des Moines earlier this week to hold a town hall discussion on college affordability and tout the government’s new College Scorecard website. But given the locale, he couldn’t help slipping in a little politics. He mused that he probably still has some frequent traveler points at a hotel near the airport—a reminder to the overflowing auditorium at North High School that he’d spent about 100 days in town when running for president in 2007–08.

The president was momentarily flummoxed, though, when a high school student asked him who was the best current candidate for education reform. “I’m going to beg off a little,” he started, before warming to the opportunity. “I can’t tell you who to vote for, not yet,” he said. “But I can tell you who to vote against.”

Obama said any candidate who claims the problem with education is teachers, or who won’t support acceptable federal funding for education, is not worthy of support. And when asked whether free community college is being considered, the president answered enthusiastically. “It’s in my budget, and I know how to pay for it,” promising to find the money by closing up corporate tax loopholes.

“Higher education has never been more important, but it’s never been more expensive,” he declared. “No young person should be priced out of college.”

He detailed the government’s new website, Collegescorecard.ed.gov, without mentioning that his administration has aborted the website’s attempt to rate every school. Collegescorecard.ed.gov allows students and parents to compare the country’s 7,000 higher education institutions on factors such as the school’s cost, its graduation rate, and what the average graduate earns as a salary. He also boasted about changes  to reduce the amount of time it takes to complete the federal student aid form, FAFSA.

Obama dropped in on the second stop of Secretary Arne Duncan’s sixth annual back-to-school bus tour. The tour, which runs through Friday, includes stops in seven states stretching from Missouri to Pennsylvania.

When a student asked why the duo targeted North High School for a visit, Duncan replied, “We like to highlight places that are trying to move in the right direction.” He referenced the school’s earlier struggles, but lauded staff for ramping up the available Advanced Placement classes from two to 15 in just a couple of years. “You didn’t get seven times smarter,” he said, but the school administration had showed higher expectations for students. “That’s real progress.”

With sleeves rolled up. Obama seemed to enjoy the give-and-take with the crowd. He teased the student body president who introduced him, asking Russhaun Johnson if he was planning on running for U.S. president himself. He reminded the crowd that the country’s national debt has decreased by two-thirds under his watch.

When asked near the end of the event about whether illegal immigrants could take advantage of government loans, Obama saw his opportunity. “This is an important question,” he told the crowd. Undocumented students are not eligible for federal loans, he said, but he encouraged all students to fill out the financial aid form anyhow, because the information is used for private and state loans too, where the rules might be different.

He then waded out into the larger issue of immigration to make a point: “For young people who came here, who are American kids by every other criteria except a piece of paper, the notion that somehow we would not welcome their desire to become full-fledged parts of this community and country, makes absolutely no sense. This whole anti-immigrant sentiment that’s out there in our politics right now is contrary to who we are.” He said he supported setting up a “fair and orderly” immigration system, and he encouraged people to follow the laws of the country. “But when I hear folks talk as if somehow these kids are different from my kids, or less worthy in the eyes of God, less worthy of our respect and consideration and care, I think that’s un-American. I think we can do better because that’s how America was made.”

Photo: President Barack Obama, accompanied by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, speaks at a town hall with high school juniors, seniors and their parents at North High School in Des Moines, Monday, Sept. 14, 2015, to discuss college access and affordability. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Why It’s Okay to Be a Non-techy Teacher


Why It’s Okay to Be a Non-techy Teacher

By deploying technology evenly throughout a district, administrators help educators focus on teaching and learning, not IT mayhem. By Scott Welch

If you’re a teacher, chances are you were taught how to teach. You likely weren’t trained to be an IT guru.

Which is why it’s so wonderful that some teachers are doing as much as they are when it comes to figuring out technology in their classrooms. Some technically inclined teachers are finding and configuring their own classroom management systems, for instance, or trying to make multiple apps work together that weren’t designed to.

Hurray for teachers who have these skills and tenacity. But should teachers be expected to shoulder this burden?

Learning management systems (LMSs) are possibly the worst time sinks for teachers. Should individual instructors have to assess the pros and cons for themselves of various systems? Should they have to canvass colleagues for tech recommendations? Should they then have to set up their own accounts and manage their students and, in K–12, parents?

Here are a handful of reasons why I think it’s time teachers got more help in choosing and setting up classroom applications.

Teachers have more important things to do. Teachers live to teach. Yet a good LMS, for instance, is something many individual teachers—if Twitter chatter is any indication—are investing a lot of time comparing and configuring. Time that could be better spent on lesson planning, grading, parent communication, and helping students succeed. Is professional development the answer? Should teachers be getting trained in how to find and configure LMS-like applications? That’s pretty technical stuff, and not everyone has the time or interest.

Too many apps make parents unhappy. A given teacher might be using a handful of apps: for learning management, parent communication, classroom management, assignment submission, and homework notification. And their kids’ other teachers might be using different apps. Parents often now need a whole slew of apps, usually with different logins, to follow their kids’ progress. Can you imagine what that’s like?

All these apps are likely making teachers unhappy. Do the apps teachers use talk to each other? Do they find themselves duplicating information? How many different apps do they have to update themselves, or how many “codes” do they have to send home, when students enter or leave their classes? It’s a veritable jungle of apps in schools and classrooms, and it distracts from the primary purpose: teaching and learning.

Legal exposure. If parents or others get sensitive student data when they shouldn’t because of apps teachers have installed and manage themselves, they and their employers could be liable, according to CIPPA, COPPA, FERPA and other regulations. This culpability is unnecessary and easily avoided by district administrators.

A digital divide between teachers hurts students. If individual teachers are setting up their own apps, a disparity emerges between students whose teachers are clever and/or motivated enough to incorporate these kinds of tools, and students whose teachers are not. If this is the case, some classes will have collaboration, standards-based assessments, and modern parent communication, and some won’t.

So What’s the Answer?

I feel strongly that school districts need to lead when it comes to sourcing and rolling out complex systems like these. My business partners and I have spent more than 25 years building enterprise applications for education, and time and again we’ve seen that district-level introduction of complex communication and assessment systems makes sense.

Why? Here are some reasons.

One app, one login—for teachers, students, and parents. One learning management app, for instance, can function as a single point of contact for all communication between teachers, students, and parents in a district. Even individual teacher websites can quietly go away when a good education engagement system conveys everything that needs to be shared between all stakeholders. With a good, well-used LMS that can be accessed any time from anywhere on anything, students and parents know where to go for the latest information.

School and district database connections manage class creation, enrollment, and contact information. Teachers never have to put students in classes or manage parent contact information themselves when software is connected to district systems. It’s a huge time savings. When students and parents come and go, connected systems magically update themselves without teachers having to do it. The management work of free systems is one of the reasons teachers stop using them after a few years.

All teachers—not just clever ones!—benefit, as do all students. When the district investigates, configures, and rolls out software and ties it to its central student information system and other district databases, all teachers get to use it—not just the ones willing to invest time on the newest technology. District-managed approaches put critical tools like learning management systems in the hands of every teacher—and as a result every student and every parent in an area.

Uniform assessment and reporting. When installed at the district level, an official district-wide electronic gradebook saves teachers time and hassle. Especially if it’s been configured to use the district’s official grading scheme and reports grades the way the district wants them at report card time. Even better if it can securely share students’ grades and other important information—like attendance and teachers’ qualitative observations— with parents throughout the year without teachers having to do anything extra.

A company to hold accountable. If a school district rolls something out district wide, it’ll likely be a commercial product from a software vendor. So if the system doesn’t work as planned, the company can be held accountable to make it right. Teachers adopting tools willy-nilly don’t have any clout individually with software companies.

So, if you’re a teacher, make friends with the instructional technology people at your school district. Introduce yourself. Share your needs. Invite them to investigate systems on behalf of all the teachers in your district. The better they understand your requirements and how they might be similar or different from those of your colleagues, the higher the likelihood they’ll find a district-wide solution to your needs. It lowers the probability that you’ll have to become a tech guru yourself. And by being a force for improved transparency and effectiveness, you’ll help make things better for all the teachers, students, and parents in your area.

Scott Welch is co-founder of Edsby, a learning management system for K–12 school districts. Learn more about Edsby at www.edsby.com.

Image: Media Bakery

How Student Travel Leads to Success Later in Life

Energy and Waves Physics Lab 101[Sponsored Content]

We all want to see today’s youth succeed and grow up to be a well-rounded generation. We encourage them to get good grades, play soccer and take piano lessons. We want them to know how to compete while being team players, and we expect them to excel both in and out of the classroom. But there’s another way to give children a leg-up, and it’s often overlooked.

We’re all familiar with the 3Rs — reading, writing and arithmetic — but it might be time to add a fourth “R” to the list. Roaming (or travel) can be an important component for a well-rounded upbringing. Youth travel gives students the opportunity to apply their knowledge and skills in an unfamiliar, real-world setting.

Educational trips are linked to increased student engagement in school as well as greater success later in life. Educational travel makes school lessons more engaging and exposes young minds to history, heritage and different cultures’ perspectives.

Leading companies such as Disney are increasingly offering children experiences that merge education and vacation. Disney offers these types of experiences at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida and Disneyland Resort in California.

Disney Youth Education Series offers a wide range of programs, giving students — and their teachers — an immersive, hands-on educational adventure. This collection of guided field studies, available in applied sciences, environmental studies, liberal arts and leadership development is accredited, standards-based and designed to reinforce classroom lessons. Student groups that participate in Disney Youth Education Series will practice teamwork, critical thinking and problem-solving skills through one-of-a-kind experiences that use Disney’s innovative and creative culture to make learning even more impactful.

Disney Performing Arts delivers workshop and performance opportunities that enrich, inspire and often lead to life-changing, personal achievement. Disney Performing Arts gives students from across the country the opportunity to fine-tune their skills, learn new ones and showcase them in front of an international audience. Ensembles can choose to perform in competitive and noncompetitive annual festivals, audition to perform on Disney Parks stages and in Disney parades, or participate in a wide range of performing arts workshops, all led by professional entertainers.

Disney Sports believes that sports can play an important role in youth development by teaching students to set individual and team goals. ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort offers thousands of youths from around the world the opportunity to compete and train at a world-class facility in a variety of sports, from soccer to basketball to cheerleading to lacrosse. Students find great value by taking part in Disney Spring Training, where athletes train with industry leaders such as Casey Powell, Brooks Johnson, and Tom Shaw. Traveling to these kinds of youth sports events can reinforce and broaden lessons learned in the classroom and inspire youths to dream bigger.

Encourage your students to travel this year to Disney Parks to experience an educational adventure with Disney Youth Programs or to get ahead of the competition next season with Disney-produced sporting events. For more information, visit DisneyYouth.com and espnwwos.com.

Tech Ed: More Important Than Ever


Tech Ed: More Important Than Ever

Four reasons this kind of training can help all students.  By Javier J. Saenz


For decades, “vocational” education prepared students for a newly industrialized workplace by training them in a specific occupational skill set. Today, career and technical education (CTE), though different in nature, is even more important. These training opportunities are generally open to all students, regardless of their career interests. Additionally, these programs help train skilled workers who are essential in today’s high-growth industries. As technically skilled jobs become some of the hardest to fill in the U.S., schools around the country are turning to technical training to help train students for their future careers. 

Districts in Texas are using these programs to meet the requirements of House Bill 5, which asks students to choose an endorsement area of study before entering high school. Florida also created a statewide planning partnership between businesses and education communities through the Career and Professional Education Act. California, Kansas, Alabama, Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, and Arizona have also invested in CTE programs of study for their K–12 curricula. Here are four ways technical education can prepare students for the global economy.


1. Diversification Within Subject Areas

CTE introduces students to countless opportunities within their industry of interest. Students looking to pursue a specialized career can learn the technical side of a career while gaining experience in business administration and development. This not only helps students become better acquainted with their areas of interest, but it also helps them grasp the diversity found within the industry as a whole.


2. Extending Students’ Skills Beyond Academics

As students begin to explore their education and career opportunities, this type of training offers relevant and rigorous curriculum that seamlessly integrates with a student’s academic schedule. In addition to helping students learn more about a career field and completing necessary coursework, this education teaches employability skills that are essential to any job in the workforce. Studies show that students who participate in these CTE-affiliated organizations not only experience 
higher academic engagement and college aspirations, but they are also more likely to develop problem-solving, time-management, and project-completion skills. 


3. Increases Student Motivation

CTE plays a critical role in keeping students engaged throughout high school because students who are involved in a career readiness path are more likely to stay motivated and graduate with a high school diploma. In fact, just one CTE class for every two academic classes minimizes the risk of dropout rates among high school students. Beyond the classroom, CTE allows students to connect with educators and professionals through formal and informal mentorship programs. Establishing these relationships helps students envision a career trajectory and offers a greater sense of community, resulting in increased engagement.


4. Creates Better Career Prospects 

Through their designated CTE pathway, students are able to partner with businesses for direct on-the-job training, leading to high-skills instruction in high-demand jobs. With this specialized training, students can fill critical roles in today’s fastest growing industries. Students with a CTE-related degree or certification can earn up to $20,000 more per year than those without career and technical training. These high-demand, high-wage jobs can be found across the country, in a wide variety of industries, such as health care, engineering, and information technology.

Since its creation nearly a century ago, CTE has evolved to become a rigorous educational program that addresses today’s ever-changing economic challenges. In addition to preparing students for success in college and their eventual careers, CTE offers skills that will help them become productive employees—and citizens—of a growing global society.


Javier J. Saenz is the director of Career and Technical Education at Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District in Texas. The school district aims to develop foundational skills and competencies through comprehensive, quality instructional CTE materials provided by CEV Multimedia.

Image: Tomas Rodriguez/Corbis/Media Bakery

Four School Lessons From the U.S. Open

Four School Lessons From the U.S. Open  

Engineering and world languages are prominent at the tennis tournament. By Wayne D’Orio

I took a few days off this week to attend the U.S. Open tennis tournament. While there really wasn’t a tie-in to my job, one thing my English teacher wife has taught me is that you’re never totally off duty. When we were dropping my son off to college recently, she bought items in the college bookstore for her classroom and took pictures of study group posters to show her students later. So as I roamed the grounds of the tournament, I discovered four things that I hope are applicable to your school year.

1) Calling All Engineers

Just one look at the tournament’s main arena, Arthur Ashe Stadium, called to mind the importance of two recent education trends, boosting STEM studies and nurturing problem solving. The 23,000-seat building sits on sandy soil, thanks mostly to its proximity to Flushing Bay. That location seemed to preclude the possibility of putting a roof on the building to guard against rain because the stadium just couldn’t support the extra weight. Rossetti Architects and engineering firm WSP teamed up to devise a roof that spans the building’s 500-foot opening without ever touching it. As you can see in the picture above, the entire structure is massive, including 5,000 tons of steel sitting on 24 exterior steel columns. The project, which won’t be finished until next year’s tournament, is expected to cost $150 million. Quite simply, it’s a stunning sight to behold and a reminder that most of the good answers can’t be found at the back of the book. And for any designers in your schools, also note that the U.S. Open has popularized (and patented) its blue courts. The color, U.S. Open Blue, was chosen in 2005. It was picked because it is the opposite of the ball’s yellow color, allowing for maximum visibility both live and on TV.

2) The World Is Getting Flatter

Despite the luminous presence of the iconic Unisphere Globe just outside the gates of Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, it is apparent from the wide array of languages heard on the grounds that the world keeps shrinking at a rapid pace. Sure, the tournament has thousands of players from 65 different countries, but chances are your district’s makeup has been diversifying recently, too. It’s not unheard of for districts to have nearly 100 different languages spoken in its schools (90 in Anchorage and 137 in Washington’s Kent School District, for example). When Japan’s Kei Nishikori lost in the first round to France’s Benoit Paire Monday, the press conferences followed a familiar formula, English-language questions first, and then each player spoke in his native language. What does this mean for your districts? Teaching more languages has been an obvious need for years, but also nurturing students’ home languages can boost their confidence while providing an invaluable resource for classmates.

3) History Can Quickly Be Forgotten

Literally in the shadow of the enormous stadium sits a little booth that boosts the initials AALC (http://www.arthurashe.org/). The Arthur Ashe Learning Center is one of the main thrusts of the great tennis player’s legacy. But many attendees at the tournament don’t know Ashe’s rich history: being the first African-American to win a Grand Slam tennis tournament, being ranked number 1 twice, and being the first to integrate the country’s Davis Cup team. The booth sat largely ignored every time I passed it. When I took my son and three of his friends to Tuesday’s matches, none of them knew who Ashe was. It was a reminder that history can disappear quickly, unless we actively work to keep mentioning it. 

4) Give Students More Options

The Universal Design for Learning movement has helped education recently by offering more options to all students (The Growing Case for UDL). The concept was on display constantly at the Open. In one instance, even as action took place on 16 courts throughout the grounds, fans flocked to the newly created seats above the practice courts so they could watch top players Roger Federer and Serena Williams hit shots. Likewise, once a match on the small outer courts captured the public’s attention, it wasn’t long before people were literally watching from other nearby buildings, proving that ingenuity wins out. Give your students more options to learn and they will take them.

 Image: Monika Graff /UPI/Newscom

Preparing for Success This School Year


Preparing for Success This School Year

Three projects to simplify back-to-school. 

By April Cooper


With the school year just beginning, or just around the corner, teachers and administrators are starting to get that familiar feeling of excitement that comes with a new year. As administrators, setting up our staff, teachers, and students for success during the school year is a key goal. Here are three projects that will make the back-to-school transition a little easier to handle.


 Plan Safety and Compliance Training


September is when administrators should ensure staff-training programs are ready for primetime. Whether administering district policy reviews, mandated safety courses, or both, it’s important to have a realistic schedule of deadlines for staff to follow when they return to school buildings. Within Guilford County Schools, we conduct our training through the SafeSchools Online Staff Training System annually. Courses are specifically assigned each month based on job title and/or location within the district. When each school year begins, new teachers and staff are automatically enrolled to begin course completions. Since the system is Web-based, employees can complete the required courses when it’s most convenient for them throughout their work day. The system’s reporting functionality also alleviates the burden on principals and department heads because we can easily track completion for all employees.


Greet New Families


This is an especially exciting time of the year because new students and families are joining our learning communities. First impressions are important, and there are several ways to make new families feel welcome even before our schools open their doors for the year. For example, consider writing letters to introduce yourself and the school, even before the school’s open house. Be sure to update all school signage, marquees, websites, and social media with the latest information for the new academic year. Many parents and students alike will rely on the Internet for timely updates. If you have some extra time, invite new families into the school for a quick chat and look around. The point is to make a personal connection and get the relationship off on the right foot. The support of local communities is vital and has proven to be a great resource to our schools.


Build Supply Lists


Back-to-school shopping is no small undertaking. According to TeacherLists, the average cost of supplies for elementary students in 2015 is $70.93. The most intrepid parents are eager to hit the supply aisles and stock up for the year. By encouraging teachers and schools to circulate supply lists early, we can increase the odds that all students will hit their desks fully prepared on the first day of class.


Every school and district is different, and these are just a few ideas to think about as the school year rolls back around. The more productive we can be now, the more time, energy, and attention we can commit to staff and students as they begin their new year.


 April Cooper is the online instructional specialist with Guilford County Schools in North Carolina.


Encouraging Nonfiction Reading and Writing


Encouraging Nonfiction Reading and Writing

Students’ self-published books teach Common Core State Standards.  By Lynn Castiglione


Touch screens, 3D printing, robots. When I first started teaching at Bellair Elementary School in Glendale, Arizona, 24 years ago, none of these existed—let alone had a place in the classroom. But technology is now an integral part of our lives, so therefore it should play a large role in the daily instruction of students.

Bellair Elementary, where I teach gifted education in grades 4-6, is part of Deer Valley Unified School District, the fifth-largest district in Arizona with 35,000 students and 38 schools. Bellair has 500 students and a lot of big ideas. And when it comes to new technology, I embrace every opportunity to have my students’ work—in math, reading, and writing—enriched by it. I’m lucky to have a principal, Jackie Dettorre, who has supported all of my technology initiatives.

Recently, my students were offered the opportunity to create self-published books with the help of Shutterfly Photo Story for Classrooms. Because the Common Core State Standards emphasize the integration of informational texts on a wide range of topics and across content areas, I required students to select nonfiction books from the library for the project.

The assignment required students to draw from their own life experiences—likes or dislikes—while researching a chosen topic to create a book that reflected what they had learned. I took this assignment one step further by having students create their own fact book using the Photo Story for Classrooms iPad app, which allowed them to add their own drawings, text, pictures, and audio. It was a true personalized book that documented their learning.  


Positive Effects on Learning

The process of creating self-published books positively affected learning styles as well, especially for one student who was eager to learn but often forgot to bring school supplies, such as a pencil or notebook, to class. There was an immediate change as soon as the classroom went digital. Having an iPad both at home and at school engaged the student in the learning process in a way that worked best for her.

Students also demonstrated collaboration. If there was a question on how to use the technology, student A would ask student B how to maneuver the app. All books had to be proofread before we submitted them for printing, and just like in the real world, there was a deadline. Students were elated to successfully navigate this process and assisted one another if they fell behind.

My gifted education students held an event to unveil their nonfiction books to parents. After being given his Photo Story book, one student exclaimed, “I knew we were getting a book, but I didn’t think it would be a real book!” Parents were equally impressed, and I was inspired.  

Riding the wave of student confidence and high motivation, I began our next project with the ambitious goal of helping students publish a portfolio of their standards-based writing pieces. We used Photo Story for Classrooms to design and assemble articles and topics from the students’ research and writing projects. This time, the wide variety of templates, themes, fonts, and drawing tools gave students the chance to personalize their writing. Adding images helped them understand the importance of style and tone with various genres—enhancing student learning in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

Students also began examining their own writing with a more critical eye. In fact, as they reflected on their original writing and design in the book format, they often saw they could write something more authentic, and more meaningful, than their initial work. Each published book became not only a polished documentation of student writing, but also a snapshot of each individual’s learning and personality.

Reflecting on their newly published books, my students are looking forward with enthusiasm to our next writing project. Stay tuned, or better yet, watch the New York Times Best Sellers lists.


Lynn Castiglione teaches gifted education at Bellair Elementary School in Glendale, Arizona


Image: Courtesy of Shutterfly

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in edu Pulse are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.