Monthly Archives: March 2013

RtI Reality: Practical Application of Research (Part 1)

By Joanne Allain, M.A.

In 2001, the federal government finally required that educators be accountable for the achievement of all students through the requirements of No Child Left Behind.  In 2004, the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, gave us the permission and structure to do so through Response to Intervention, or RtI (aka, Multi-Tier System of Supports, or MTSS).

RtI is defined as  “… the practice of (1) providing high-quality instruction/intervention matched to student need and (2) using learning rate over time and level of performance to (3) make important educational decisions” (Batsche et al., 2005). One might argue that this is what we have always done in education, but unfortunately,  many students only received assistance if they qualified for special education services. Others got what little assistance teachers could provide in between the myriad of “educational priorities” that changed with each election.

In my practice, I consult with districts and schools across the country to turn RtI/MTSS research into practice. While adhering to the research is necessary and beneficial, it can also create unintended obstacles when applied in its literal form.  Response to Instruction and Intervention is so critical to the advancement of our educational system that we must discuss its practical application as it pertains to our individual settings.  To that end, I am pleased to share a series of columns that will explore, clarify, and provide options for educators.

While implementing this research-based practice, it is important to keep in mind that, just as children learn differently, each RtI/MTSS implementation is unique to the educational community that adopts it. Data are always the key. If the data say the model is working, then it is!

Let’s begin with the very concept of RTI/MTSS.

RtI/MTSS is the way we educate students, not just one more thing to do!

Depending on the district or school, the very concept of RtI/MTSS changes. In some schools, it’s a time of the day, or RtI time. In others, it’s a class or subject, as in I teach RtI. In yet others, it’s something we do to students when they struggle too much and we have to put them into RtI. In many cases, RtI/MTSS is another new initiative or just one more thing to do. Thus, it is subject to the swing of the pendulum and the budget ax.

Multiple interpretations of RtI/MTSS suggest that we may need some clarification.

Response to Instruction and Intervention is a philosophy of education or a “unified system of education … (that) places primary importance on meeting the needs of all students” (Faust, 2006). This philosophy envisions a system in which all students reach their potential through a system of structures, supports, and safety nets carefully designed to meet their instructional needs, whether they struggle or exceed expectations. Educational institutions that embrace this philosophy create a series of supports that focus on instruction and intervention driven by student data, not adult preference. It is the system and/or structure under which all educational plans and resources—both human and financial—serve children.

To visualize the concept of RtI/MTSS as educational philosophy, I consider a favorite graphic organizer, “Blueprint for Writing,” from the comprehensive literacy intervention LANGUAGE! by Dr. Jane Fell Greene. Designed as a house with a roof, walls, pictures (details), and foundation, this organizer offers a compelling visual of a fully implemented philosophy.

Everything education occurs under the roof or philosophy of RtI/MTSS—academics, behavior, and planning all converge to ensure the foundational goal of student achievement and school improvement. This means that every instructional plan we make, every dollar we spend, every resource we allocate, and every class we schedule is based on student achievement data through a structure that provides a multi-tiered system of supports.

Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 4.00.54 PM

Graphic Organizer: LANGUAGE!, 2004

Content: Joanne Allain, 2012

In an RtI/MTSS philosophy, data-driven instruction and intervention are the way we do business. As depicted in the graphic organizer, all planning, decisions, and allocations revolve around the needs of children.

Adopting and implementing an RtI/MTSS philosophy not only allows for innovation and improvement, it demands them—as long as student achievement data guide all decisions. In his article, Faust (2006) describes fully functional RtI as  “… a unified system [that] serves students rather than creating ‘silos’ where students go to receive interventions and support based on a disability label or other risk factors.”

Words count. How we talk and think about RtI/MTSS has significant impact on its priority and place in our educational system. Is it the flavor of the month, or the way we educate our children?  How do we ensure that RtI/MTSS will withstand the passage of time and changes in personnel and funding?

We strive for an educational system that serves all students, all the time. At the center of an RtI philosophy is the belief that we “label the need and not the child” (Lyon & Fletcher, 2001), label the instruction and not the teacher, and label the resource and not the funding stream. I believe we are ready. I know our students are.

Stay tuned for the next blog post: “The RtI Pyramid: What does it really mean and how does it apply to my school or district?”


Batsche, G., Elliott, J., Graden, J. L., Grimes, J., Kovaleski, J. F., Prasse, D., et al. (2005). Response to intervention: Policy considerations and implementations. Alexandria, VA. National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

Faust, J. (2006). Response to intervention and problem solving: An administrator’s perspective. In Case: The News Letter for the Council of Administrators of Special Education, 47(4), 1–2.

Lyon, G. R., & Fletcher, J. M. (2001). Early Warning System. Education Matters, Summer, 2001.

Joanne Allain,MA, a national consultant with 3t Literacy Group, works with states, districts and schools across the country to develop, implement and coach practical, customized RtI systems, instruction and intervention.  Her career experience at both the classroom and district level provides the unique perspective of a practitioner in real schools with real students. Joanne is the author of Logistics of Literacy Intervention; A Planning Guide for Middle and High School, Logistics of Literacy Intervention: An RtI Planning Guide for Elementary Schools and RtI: The Forgotten Tier; A Practical Planning Guide for Building a Data Driven Tier 1 Instruction Process. Joanne can be contacted at .


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Mary Poppins Gets It

Teachers Can Learn a Few Tricks from Fictional Nanny

Guest Teacher Blogger – Winner of the 2012 Sopris Learning Blog Contest!

By Michelle George

On the long holiday weekend, I thought I’d take a break from grading papers and planning units to watch an old family favorite, Mary Poppins. My choice was “practically perfect in every way.” You’ve heard the old adage, “You learn everything you need to know in kindergarten.” Now I have a new one for teachers: Mary Poppins gets it when it comes to educating kids.

First off, you’ve got to love any woman who can pull off that stark, buttoned-down look and still appear pleasantly attractive. Beyond that, she is an excellent illustration of what it takes to be a teacher who can reach kids and change lives.  Stay with me, and I’ll explain.

Mary Poppins has mastered the balance between a warm, personal and a productive, professional relationship. She clearly loves Jane and Michael, but she’s not their friend. After all, someone has to tell Michael, “Close your mouth; we are not a cod fish.” That takes love and a bit of authority.

As teachers, we need to find that balance as well. Numerous research studies have shown that the student/teacher relationship is instrumental in student success. Successful teachers sincerely care about their students. The challenge is that a teacher must care more about her students than about what those students think of her. Being a friend and a teacher doesn’t usually work. Nearly every person you ask can tell you about their most influential teacher, and that person is almost always someone that showed genuine caring while earning respect … just like Mary Poppins.

Right after Ms. Poppins floats in and befuddles Dad, she heads up to meet the children. She calmly opens up her carpet bag and begins making the nursery her own. As teachers, we can take our cue from her in two ways.

First, make your classroom and your teaching your own. Share some of your personality with your students. If you’re bored teaching the material, imagine how those distracted kids in front of you are feeling. With the advent of the Common Core, we are freer than ever to choose content that we are passionate about. It’s the process that is key. For instance, I teach essay writing using topics that interest both me and my students. I’m feeling more at home already.

The carpet bag reminded me of a second way we can settle into our classrooms. As a first-year teacher, I had a mentor who often referred to her favorite teaching strategies as her “bag of tricks.” She frequently claimed that, whenever her students were struggling with a challenging concept or just struggling to stay focused, she would pull out one of her “tricks” and keep the class on course.

After 19 years, I now have a few tricks that I rely on as well. I use music in my classroom to manage work time and transition time. I use games to practice concepts and content that students need to commit to memory. My tricks are actually research-based teaching strategies. I didn’t make them up; I learned them from high-quality professional development classes. I wouldn’t enter any new class without my own “bag of tricks.” And just like Mary Poppins, my carpet bag is seemingly bottomless. Every time I attend a training or take a class, I add to my bag of tricks. Student engagement is a moving target; if you want to keep ahead of your students, you must keep adding to the bag.

So now Ms. Poppins is really getting comfortable in her new surroundings. She looks around, and the nursery is a mess. Mary has a couple of choices. She can jump in and do the work herself, but that doesn’t teach the kids anything, and that is her purpose after all. She can also sit herself down and tell the kids to get to it. (We all know how well that usually works.) Instead, she steps back and takes the time to ensure that this newest project is successful. She says, “Well begun is half done.” Brilliant!

How many times have you headed into a class when you had a pretty good notion of what you wanted the kids to accomplish … you were just a little fuzzy on the details of the process? I’m sure none of you has ever launched in without being prepared, but I have a time or two. (Of course, it was early in my career.) Every time that happened, I learned the hard way what Mary Poppins knew all along. If you lay the ground work ahead of time, the process will go much more smoothly, and the final product will be much more satisfying.

Here is a recent example of beginning well. My students write an essay each year for the Veterans of Foreign Wars Patriot’s Pen contest. This year the topic was, “What would you say to our Founding Fathers?”

Before we began the inquiry unit, I asked the kids to share with each other who they thought might be considered a “Founding Father.” When I started hearing names like Lewis and Clark, and Albert Einstein, I knew we had some work to do.

After some time planning and gathering resources, we spent several days building a knowledge base. We listened to podcasts about some of our revered leaders, and read short expository pieces on those early years of our nation. We read first-person accounts of the dilemma those men faced when choosing the dangers of independence from England. I even found a great music video that some teacher with genuine talent and too much free time made that sums it up in a very entertaining way. We also read, Shh! We’re Writing the Constitution, by Jean Fritz and Tomie dePaola, to better understand the compromise required to forge a united nation.

Preparation for the essay contest took time—more than I thought I had available. But if we hadn’t done the scaffolding, building knowledge and understanding, my students might have been thanking the father of the theory of relativity for our country’s beginnings. After the research, my students easily wrote their essays with specific details and intriguing analysis. I’m thankful to Mary Poppins that this particular job was “well begun.”

Well, I’m already over my length limit, and Jane and Michael haven’t even met Burt yet. Mary Poppins has a lot more to teach us as teachers, so I’ll stop here for now and finish up the movie in my next blog. As Mary says, “Enough is as good as a feast.”

Michelle S. George is a language arts middle school teacher in Orofino, Idaho. She has a B.A. in English and secondary certification in English, reading, and journalism. Michelle has been teaching seventh and eighth grade for 20 years, and still loves going to school—as a teacher and a student. She has published a variety of lesson plans and written several award-winning grants.

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Myths of Bullying Prevention

Myth 3: Bullying is a problem for youth that everyone outgrows (Part 3 of 3)

By Kathleen Keelan

“What if the bully is in this room?” was a statement I remember from an adult participant in one of my workshops years ago.

This courageous teacher was not going to sit by while I went through my normal spiel of defining the bullying dynamic. There are bullies. There are victims. There are bystanders. There are “up standers”—the new term that describes kids who stand up for kids who are being mistreated. This was an adult who was not going to let the workshop proceed as usual without making her stand.

Looking back, I realize what this brave person must have been going through to do what she did. She was describing a coworker who had, in her eyes, been bullying her for years. I don’t know the specifics, but I believe the whole staff was aware of the conflict. The adults in the room were perfectly comfortable when we were discussing how kids treat each other and how they need to “take a stand” against bullying.  But the tension in the room became palpable when this courageous staff member spoke up.

She had been experiencing a power imbalance for years at this school. She had been ostracized by the one staff member, and then eventually many of them joined in. The leadership was aware of it and did not come to her defense—not because they did not care, but because I think they were not sure how to intervene. Once she heard there was an in-service on bullying prevention, she set in her mind that it would not be all about the students at that school. The issue had gone on too long, and she did not know how to stop it. It was devastating personally, and it was destroying the joy she felt in her chosen profession. Finally, at 3:00 in the afternoon, she mustered the courage to blurt out the words that I believe she had been holding back for a long time:

“What if the bully is on the staff?”

There is a layer of distance when adults talk about the kids and how they treat one another. However, when we begin to examine the very human condition of how people treat one another, the situation becomes a different story.

It is not unusual for someone to approach me at the end of a workshop or during a break to explain to me that the real bullying is between some of the adults on the staff or in the community. Normally, these conversations take place to the side of the podium in whispers, with a lot of glancing over the shoulder to see who is listening. It is rare for the issue to be brought out in a public forum.

After she said the first statement, there was some understandable shifting in the chairs and nervous chuckling. The courageous teacher went on to say:

“What if the bully is in this room?”

At this point, there was not a single participant willing to avert their gaze from mine. Nobody would look to the left or the right because somehow this would be admitting to being or pointing to the culprit. This staring contest went on for what seemed like hours.

The bullying dynamic is so complex when you look at it from the group level. Some call this form of bullying relational aggression or a type of aggression that causes harm through damaging relationships. Adult groups, just like groups of children, must find an even ground on which to function. Simple concepts like relating to one another with predictability are a must. Allowing people to think individually and to express views openly are signs that a group is treating its members with human dignity. However, sometimes there is bullying, or even extreme bullying, among adults in a group setting.

In a perfect world, when people do not give the power to the bully on the playground or on the staff, the bullying stops. When a group has an awareness of what is happening, then the group should refrain from giving the power to the bully. I believe that within this staff most of the teachers did not want to mistreat the courageous teacher. But, just like children, they went along with the person they perceived to be the person with the power. This winner-take-all mentality contributes to conflict and injustice. The same fears that immobilize children immobilize adults: fear of losing social collateral; fear that they will be the next target; fear of retaliation.

People have the same hope that we have had throughout the ages. Whether it is group bullying or individual bullying, we have power in numbers. I am thankful to have had that experience that day. Without passing judgment on the teachers, I realized that I needed to see beyond the actual statements. I reminded them that, unless one teacher has the courage to stand up against the staff member and support the courageous teacher, the abuse that is happening will continue.

The elephant in the room was exposed. I encouraged the group to stop staring at me and start looking at each other.

Kathleen Keelan has dedicated her career to preventing bullying by working as a teacher, therapist, presenter, and expert witness in bullying cases. She has been conducting bullying prevention workshops in schools since the late ’90s and also conducts classes and webinars throughout the United States.

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Myths of Bullying Prevention

Myth 2: Adults Know What They Are Doing When It Comes to Bullying Prevention (Part 2 of 3)

By Kathleen Keelan
Often, due to our overreactions or underreactions, well-meaning adults do not understand the complexities that children face when it comes to bullying situations. By trying to apply adult solutions to children’s problems, they make the situation worse.

In spite of our best efforts, most adults generally do not know how to deal effectively with bullying situations. Sadly, this includes the very people who need to understand the dynamic most, including teachers, administrators, counselors, parents, superintendents, paraprofessionals, and bus drivers, to name a few.

Then there are the TV producers, investigative reporters, researchers, movie makers, movie stars, public service announcement producers, pop singers, and talk show hosts, who are also trying to help solve the bullying issues of our youth and usually coming up short.

Lastly, we have the more well-informed but less connected researchers and college professors, who have studies and surveys and graphs, but fall short of producing real answers for real kids in real situations.  

Attempts to address the problem through movies, studies, one-day school assemblies, policies, legislation, surveys, and conferences don’t really help the children for a number of reasons.

A perfect example is one-day assemblies aimed at giving kids the opportunity to let others in their class know about some hardships they have experienced. One-day assemblies that “challenge” children to stop bullying one another are generally effective for the rest of that day. This type of oversimplification of the issue is what frustrates children who are in the trenches of bullying.

Take antibullying programs that reward kids for what we consider “standing up for others.” Students may perceive earning these “rewards” as attempts to buddy up with teachers and other adults in the building to win their approval. As a result, the kids who buddy up with the adults may lose social collateral with their peers. Thus, there is a disincentive to “stand up for others” the next time a bullying situation occurs.

Another example: the public service announcement campaign that asks kids to wait out the frustration they may be experiencing at school because eventually things will “get better.” Many celebrities have lent their clout to the “It Gets Better” effort. Some children may have benefited from this message, but I feel that it is a message of false hope and can be misleading. It also gets adults off the hook in terms of making the environment better for kids.

I feel strongly that kids who are teased for issues such as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (GLBT) identity—who have been the target of this message—should not have to wait for things to get better at school. If there is a hint of this type of prejudice and we, as adults, are aware of it, then relying on messages that make promises of relief in the future is really morally reprehensible.

How Can We Really Help?

Where do we go wrong? In virtually all situations we are guilty of overreacting or underreacting. Remember, it is very difficult for children to come to an adult and ask for help when they believe they are being bullied. If the adult brushes it off, it can be devastating. Conversely, when we completely overreact by doing something like pulling a child from a particular school due to bullying, we are also doing the child a disfavor.

It is important to be aware of exactly what constitutes “bullying.” The research Dr. Dan Olweus did in the 1980s is still an excellent guide, which has helped me in this field many times. Dr. Olweus began his research in 1983 in northern Norway, where three adolescent boys died by suicide. The act was most likely a consequence of severe bullying by peers, prompting the county’s Ministry of Education to initiate a national campaign against bullying in schools.

Dr. Olweus, considered the “pioneer,” crafted the following definition, which is still widely used today:

“A person is being bullied when he or she is exposed repeatedly over time to negative action on the part of one of more persons. Negative action is when a person intentionally inflicts injury or discomfort upon another person, through physical contact, through words, or in other ways.”  

If we look closely at the definition, we can see it has elements that can help adults avoid overreacting or underreacting to bullying. Bullying is not just about one person having the power; it is also about the victim not wanting the particular type of interaction to take place.

More time spent with children and less time spent on statistics is one solution to reducing bullying. Our reactions and our attempts to deal with the problem are often to benefit ourselves, to make us feel like we are doing something. However, unless we actually talk with the children, we may be making things worse.

Adults’ knee-jerk reactions, albeit understandable, do not always help reduce bullying in schools. It would behoove us as adults to spend a great deal of time trying to figure out exactly the best way to approach a specific bullying situation in order to actually help a child.

Kathleen Keelan has dedicated her career to preventing bullying by working as a teacher, therapist, presenter, and expert witness in bullying cases. She has been conducting bullying prevention workshops in schools since the late ’90s and also conducts classes and webinars throughout the United States.

Categories: Family, General Education, Positive School Climate, Professional Developement | 2 Comments

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