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When Do Teachers Get to Practice?

By Dr. Sandra D. Jones

As developing a teacher evaluation system becomes a mandate at the state level, administrators who are also conscientious educators strive to comply. It is, however, proving to be quite a challenge for them.

I’m a literacy consultant and, for the past three years, I have been working in a district that just became a recipient of its state’s Race to the Top funds. District administrators are getting ready for the next school year by reviewing the teacher evaluation system designed by their state, which provides both formative and summative information on teacher performance.

There was a momentous shift in the administrators’ focus from the end of last school year to the beginning of this school year. For the first two years of the district initiative, I worked with the leadership team on how to conduct “learning walks” geared toward helping teachers develop the skills necessary to provide high-quality literacy instruction to all of their students.

We watched videos demonstrating effective literacy instruction, conducted countless walks and debriefings, worked as a team to achieve inter-rater reliability across the district, reviewed trend analyses, identified professional development needs—all the while assuring teachers that these “learning walks” were not evaluative.

While not completely won over, teachers were beginning to believe that the “learning walks” were instructional rather than evaluative in nature and increasingly welcomed observers into their classrooms.

At the beginning of this year, I was earnestly and politely informed by one of the principals that he was no longer going to conduct “learning walks” because he had to conduct teacher evaluation walks. Mind you, this comment was said in the presence of the superintendent and assistant superintendent.

He explained that the state-mandated evaluation walks had to be at least 15 minutes in length and had to be conducted a large number of times over the course of the school year. He said that there was “no way” he could conduct the teacher evaluation observations and provide instructional leadership “learning walks” at the same time. Furthermore, he added that at the previous state-sponsored principal training, his colleagues expressed the same thoughts. He and his colleagues all agreed that the new teacher evaluation mandates took precedence over other time-consuming observations. His declaration stopped me “dead in my tracks.” A multitude of questions were running through my mind as I listened to this educator, whom I respected.

Teaching is hard work! Changing how we teach is even more difficult and stressful. I recently re-entered the classroom to learn how to teach a strategy that was new to me. The resource teacher graciously allowed me to learn and practice in her classroom. Her pay-off was learning along with me; the students gained expertise and made significant progress. Despite my nervousness at being observed by the resource teacher and some of her colleagues, I felt “safe” trying out this new way to teach. After every lesson, we debriefed and discussed what went well and what didn’t. This was instructional collaboration at its finest, and it made me wonder, “When do teachers get to practice?”

If teacher observations are always evaluative in nature, teachers either do not get to practice new strategies in a safe and instructionally focused environment or their environment could inhibit the very fundamentals of effective embedded professional development.

Federal policy regarding teacher accountability has filtered down to the states, and from there to districts and schools. Educators are scrambling to figure out how to implement these policies. My plea is that, as we figure out how to conduct evaluative observations, we take care not to undo the gains we have made in helping teachers learn new data-based instructional practices.

If principals do not have time for instructional leadership because they have to collect a specified number of 15-minute evaluation segments over the course of a year, then we have a problem. Nowhere in the numerous Multitier System of Supports (MTSS) explanatory documents, the multitude of rubrics, or the many forms for collecting evidence is there a discussion of how to help teachers progress from one level to the next.

I’m not opposed to evaluation and teacher accountability, but I am insisting—begging, really—that we balance the new teacher evaluation mandates and accompanying time drains with the time required for effective instructional leadership. How do we help teachers make changes in their teaching or learn how to teach a new strategy if they don’t have opportunities to practice their craft? Time to practice new strategies with students in a “safe” environment must be part of the equation as we move forward with teacher evaluation.

Sandra D. Jones, Ph.D., is president of HILL for Literacy, Inc., and has been a school educator for 40 years, serving as a teacher, professional development coordinator, principal, and academic dean. She is a coauthor of Leading Literacy Change: Strategies and Tools for Administrators, Teachers and Coaches and a national presenter and consultant in literacy. Dr. Jones served as the professional development coordinator for the State of Massachusetts’ Reading First Initiative for six years. She was also the academic dean at The Carroll School, a nationally recognized school for children with language-based learning disabilities, and was an associate professor in the MGH Institute of Health Professions’ Communication Sciences and Disorders graduate program.

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RtI Reality: Practical Application of Research (Part II)

The RtI/MTSS Triangle: Step Away from the Silo to Meet All Students’ Needs

By Joanne Allain, M.A.

In Part 1 of this blog entry, we explored RtI/MTSS as an instructional system or philosophy of education and the importance of its sustainability. Once the decision is made to move forward, we begin to build a structure for implementation.

Mysteries of the Pyramid

In this installment, we will discuss the interpretation and sometimes misinterpretation of the RtI triangle or pyramid. Researchers and writers commonly use a three-tier triangle to illustrate the degrees of intensity and services available to students in a multitier instructional system.

Joanne 1

The base of the triangle represents Tier I services, in which all students receive grade-level instruction through a system of teaching, differentiation, and reteaching. According to the literature, 80 percent of students will succeed with research-based first instruction, short-term differentiation, and reteaching.

The middle tier, or Tier II, represents short-term strategic services that some students (approximately 15 percent) will require to successfully negotiate grade-level work.

Tier III, the top tier of the triangle, depicts the intensive services that students who are significantly below grade level (approximately 3 to 5 percent of students) will need in order to increase their skill level to the point that they will be able to interact with grade-level material.

It is helpful to have a visual representation of services, and a triangle serves to reinforce the notion of increased focus and intensity from base to apex.  However, it also poses some problems through misinterpretation of the intent of the tiers when the model is taken too literally: (1) using the tiers to label children or assign a student population to a specific tier and (2) strict adherence to the percentages can result in denial of services to children in need.

The RtI/MTSS triangle represents the services across tiers that any and all students may need based on multiple data points. Data always determine the type of service designed to help students achieve at their full potential.

This is a critical point because the intent of RtI/MTSS is to provide instruction and intervention services to all students, not to exchange one label for another, resulting in “Tier I kids, Tier II kids, and Tier III kids.” The tiers represent the types of services that students need, not the students themselves. The tier services, from intervention to enrichment, are available to all students equally, based on data, not label.

In Logistics of Literacy Intervention: An RtI Planning Guide for Elementary Schools, I emphasize that the service tiers are “fluid not finite” and that each tier comprises a range of services designed to meet the assessed needs of a diverse group of students whose needs will change over time.

The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) published a triangle that exemplifies this position. We do not have separate triangles or tiers for special education, English learners, students who receive Title I services, gifted and talented, or any other student population. All students are served within the triangle based on data, not label.

Joanne 2

Notice the triangle within the triangle. OSEP understandably focused on students with special needs who can receive services at any tier of the triangle, but we could easily add gifted and talented, English learners, and students who receive Title I services. All means all.

If we begin to make other triangles or tier-specific student populations, then aren’t we saying that all students with special needs or all English learners are the same and have the same needs? If Tier III, for example, represents intensive academic intervention, and we call Tier III special education, then it must follow that every student with an IEP requires intensive academic intervention. How do we reconcile this practice with the belief that we should label the need and not the child? If, instead of students with special needs, we have “Tier III kids,” we have simply traded one label for another.

It is much more likely that a student with special needs, a student without special needs, and an English learner demonstrate the same assessed need. If this is the case, why, in this time of constrained budgets, would we provide redundant services simply because the labels, funding streams, and silos are different?

If we recognize that the triangle represents a variety of needs and the services needed to ameliorate them, then we understand that using data and problem solving to determine appropriate instruction and intervention is the best way to serve all students.

Whom the Pyramid Serves

The second contention of this entry is that the traditional RtI/MTSS pyramid range demonstrating 80 percent of students successful with Tier I services only, 15 percent requiring Tier II services, and 5 percent in need of Tier III services, is not meant as a literal application in every school and district.

Think of the 80-15-5 illustration as the goal or the optimal configuration if first instruction is efficient. In this model, approximately 20 percent of students would need additional instruction and intervention to reach grade-level targets. The 80-15-5 triangle is the target, but perhaps not the starting point for many districts and schools.

The percentages depicted in the triangle do not intend to convey that only 20 percent of students are eligible for intervention services. Yet, sometimes the triangle percentages are applied literally, resulting in denial of intervention for many students in need.

We cannot implement a one-size-fits-all RtI/MTSS plan. Each district and school  must start where they are, as defined by data, to develop a successful system. Districts within a state and schools within a district are unique. Even within the same school districts, it is common to find a range of performance from school to school.

Hopefully, we have progressed from the one-size-fits-all instructional models of the past. The following trio of triangles, from Logistics of Literacy Intervention, is more reflective of the variation in the degree of needs and services in schools across the country.

Joanne 3

The good news is that the optimum configuration can be realized if we embrace the philosophy of RtI and provide intervention to all who need it. All children mean all children—all of the time. We don’t have a fully operational system if only some needs are being met.

Ultimately, we must recognize that any visual representation is inadequate to represent the rich diversity among our students. The triangle is a guide, a way to help educators and parents understand the variation of services that may be needed to meet the needs of all our students.

We move forward with the knowledge that we are meeting those needs with standards and data-based instruction and intervention. Our end goal is that all students reach their full potential and are able to compete in a complex world.

In Part 3, we will discuss assessment in an RtI/MTSS system and how more is not always better.

Joanne Allain, M.A., works with states, districts, and schools across the country to develop, implement, and coach customized RtI systems. Her career experience at both the classroom and district level provides the perspective of a practitioner in real schools with real students. She is the author of Logistics of Literacy Intervention: A Planning Guide for Middle and High School and Logistics of Literacy Intervention: An RtI Planning Guide for Elementary Schools as well as coauthor of RtI: The Forgotten Tier: A Practical Guide for Building a Data-Driven Tier I Instructional Process. You can contact Joanne at

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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

Myths of Bullying Prevention

Myth 1: Buying a Program Will Stop Bullying (Part 1 of 3)

By Kathleen Keelan

“Bullying is not the issue this year. Get a program in place and move on.” –Administrator, 2012

The very complex issue of bullying cannot be solved by just purchasing a bullying prevention program. Period.

Schools and school districts want the bullying to end, so they have been known to call in the rodeo clowns, movie producers, and cartoon characters. Unfortunately, because of the intricacies of the power dynamic of all stakeholders, the bullying issue cannot easily be handled by any one solution.

Our knowledge of the issue is growing every day. Our understanding of how to stop the phenomenon is slowing improving. One thing we know for sure: it’s not an easy fix.

One instance I was involved in comes to mind. A wealthy private school had an extensive program against bullying, complete with assemblies, posters, and speakers. The teachers were given tokens that they could hand out to the kids when they behaved in such a way that they were not bullying one another. In one case, a student was bullied. The one who bullied him also felt bullied. Both students’ parents hired a lawyer. There was a restraining order awarded so the two could not be in contact with each other. The principal was completely dumbfounded as to how the situation got to this point, considering he had done so much to avoid bullying in the first place. The principal was not prepared to deal with the complexities of the power issues, the community, and the culture of the building.

Like that particular principal, teachers and school officials often feel at rest when they invest in a bullying prevention program, but their job is far from done. Sadly, when it comes to bullying, they can never really let their guard down until they work on the larger and stickier issue—the culture of the building.

People often ask me what they can do about the culture once it is set. Through my experience I believe there are a few things. To begin to curb bullying, we must work on the immediate interactions between the individuals in a school setting, engage the bystanders, and not rely on programs to fix the problem.

The culture that doesn’t tolerate, encourage, ignore, or placidly condone through silence is a culture that will not allow bullying to take place. A culture where the kids do not see the adults bully each other or other students is a culture that doesn’t encourage bullying. A culture where the kids don’t see adults who are trying to gain power for themselves in inappropriate ways is a culture where bullying will not be tolerated.

Rather than depending on a formal bullying program, adults need to set an example. If they see someone being mistreated, they need to respond immediately, even if it is a colleague or another adult who is doing the bullying. If they see a child being mistreated, they need to intervene quickly.

The mantra in the hallway, the bus, and the classroom must be: “We don’t treat each other that way here.”

Adults who witness an episode of bullying should:

  • Stop it with a quick response
  • Educate and be clear about behavior that is disrespectful; saying you are “just kidding” does not make it better
  • Avoid ignoring it or excusing it

Classroom teachers bear much of the brunt of this immediate intervention role. They must:

  • Know the school’s policy so they can tell the students how they violated it (many do not know it)
  • Try to get the facts (much of the time, they argue that do not have the time)
  • Not judge how upset the target is or tell the target how he or she should or should not feel (this requires training and leadership)

So, is there any value in investing in a bullying program? Consider whether the program addresses the above micro-interactions. It must also address “bystander intervention,” meaning will a bystander “step up” on behalf of someone being bullied? Some of the finest researches in the nation have found this to be one of the key factors in bullying prevention.

In a recent meta-analysis by Joshua Polanin, Dorothy Espelage, and Therese Pigott out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found bullying prevention programs were “effective at changing bystander behavior both on a practical and statistically significant level.”

Changing bystander behavior is at least a step in changing culture. We cannot and should not rely on bystanders to handle all of the issues of bullying, but if they are engaged, at least we can feel that they are assisting the adults in changing the culture. Schools can and should purchase a bullying prevention program as long as it has something to do with improving the culture and engaging the bystanders. However, changing the culture takes work, and relying on a bullying prevention program alone is a mistake.

As educators, it breaks our hearts to know that bullying goes on in our schools. It is important that the steps we take are having a positive impact for our sakes and the sakes of our students.

To oversimplify the issue of bullying is unconscionable, mainly because we choose solutions that are oversimplified as well. If we look at it for what it is, a human rights issue, then we will begin to really invest in true solutions that match the severity of the issue. The solutions will require bystanders and other group psychodynamic complex interventions that look at various power differentials in the community.

The myth of a quick fix for bullying prevention should be put to rest for good.

Polanin, J. R., Espelage, D. L., Pigott, T. D. (2012). “A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Bullying Prevention Programs’ Effects of Bystander Intervention Behavior.” School Psychology Review, 41(1), pp. 47-65.

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 | 11 Comments

How Do We Define an Early Childhood Curriculum?

By Dr. Shirley Patterson

There are numerous approaches to early childhood education. Most, if not all, have a goal of enhancing school readiness, and the approach individual teachers use will most likely depend on their philosophical position on early learning.

Our views related to the purpose of a curriculum and the approaches we use can be envisioned on a continuum (Soler & Miller, 2003), with one end being child-directed input and the other more adult-directed input. The curriculum may become the object of discussion when different views or philosophies are expressed. What is the appropriate content and context for early learning in the classroom?  How will the curriculum be delivered?

Our vision for early childhood education is expressed through the curriculum we implement. I believe that high-quality, intentional curriculum can increase the achievement of children, particularly children from low-income homes (Klein & Knitzer, 2006).

What is an early childhood (EC) curriculum? Can you define your concept of a curriculum? Simple question—not so simple answer. If you ask this question to 10 people in the EC teaching profession, you might get 10 different answers. Some will say it is a framework for learning. Some will say it is a group of activities for children. Some will say it is a scope and sequence of goals/objectives. Is it any of these? Is it all of these? Does it matter that we can define it? I believe it does.

A lack of clarity in the definition leads to a lack of conceptualization of what an early childhood curriculum should be. For the teacher who arms her/himself with all the tools possible to provide the best instructional environment for young children, the curriculum is at the core of the program.

According to a 2009 joint position paper of the National Association for the Education of Young Children  (NAEYC) and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (NAECS-SDE), “Curriculum is an organized framework that delineates the content children are to learn, the processes through which children achieve the identified curricular goals, what teachers do to help children achieve these goals, and the context in which teaching and learning occur.”

Here are three other definitions of curriculum:

  • “Planned and guided learning experiences and intended outcomes, formulated through the systematic reconstruction of knowledge and experiences under the auspices of the school, for the learners’ continuous and willful growth in personal social competence” (Tanner, 1980)
  • “A written document that systematically describes goals planned, objectives, content, learning activities, evaluation procedures and so forth” (Pratt, 1980)
  • “All of the experiences that individual learners have in a program of education whose purpose is to achieve broad goals and related specific objectives, which is planned in terms of a framework of theory and research or past and present professional practice” (Hass, 1987)

There are commonalities among these definitions. According to a number of curriculum definitions, whether teachers write their own curriculum or purchase a commercial curriculum, some common features apply. For example, a curriculum is planned, systematic, and organized. It provides a framework and guided learning with the content and context for learning. There are goals and objectives with intended learning outcomes. And, as noted from the national professional literature and guidance, we need accountability and outcome measurements. Curricula must align with state guidelines or early childhood standards, the Common Core State Standards, and/or professional organizations such as NAEYC.

It is clearly a large task to produce an early childhood curriculum that has all components, is developmentally appropriate, and moves children forward in preparation for kindergarten. When we can define “curriculum,” then we can describe what we want children to learn, how we intend to teach, the sequence of instruction, the goals or outcomes we desire/expect, and how we will measure them. It is a big job. What is your definition?

Shirley Patterson, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist and learning disabilities specialist.  She is a consultant in early language and literacy and a certified instructor for the The Emerging Language and Literacy Curriculum, which she coauthored with Ornes, McMillan, & Thomas.


Hoss, G. (1987). Curriculum planning: A new approach. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Klein, L. & Knitzer, J. (2006). Effective preschool curricula and teaching strategies. Pathways to Early School Success, Issue Brief No.2. Retrieved from

NAEYC & NAECS/SDE. (2009). Where we stand on curriculum, assessment, and program evaluation.  Retrieved from

Pratt, D. (1980). Curriculum: Design and development. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Soler, J. & Miller, L. (2003). The struggle for early childhood curricula: A comparison of the English Foundation Stage Curriculum, Te Wha’riki and Reggio Emilia.

Tanner, D. & Tanner, L. (1980). Curriculum development: Theory into practice. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

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Sentences: The Busy Bees of Text

By Nancy Hennessy

I wonder how many of you conjured up images of yourself diagramming written sentences as you read the title of this blog. Some of you may have even cringed a bit (a hint of grammar sometimes has that effect).

I vividly recall Sister Marie Edwina’s class and the innumerable sentences I diagrammed for English (the term language arts had yet to be coined). Assured of a good grade, this task  was high on my list of academic favorites. However, unlike the author of Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and the Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences, I missed the point. Kitty Burns Florey (2006) got it, explaining “… once they were laid open, all their secrets explored—those sentences could be comprehended.”

While diagramming itself may not play an essential role in your instruction, its goal—building an understanding of how parts of a sentence contribute to meaning—should.

The Importance of the Sentence

The sentence lies at the heart of communicating thought and meaning, whether you are the writer or the reader. The rules of our language, syntax AKA grammar, allow for the creation of an infinite number of sentences that serve as the “worker bees of text” (Scott, 2004). The relationship that exists between syntax and semantics cannot be overlooked as educators work at developing students’ reading and writing proficiency. Even the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), with a bit of detective work and inference, acknowledge a role for sentences in writing and comprehension.

Connections to Writing

We, as teachers, recognize that writing proficiency is dependent on multiple processes and skills, and that the translation of ideas into syntactically correct form is central to conveying intended meaning. The nitty gritty aspects of parts of speech, the notorious sentence fragments, and the nuances of the simple, compound, and complex sentence are all too familiar to those who teach students how to write.

We have also had experiences with the havoc a sloppy sentence can wreak on the meaning of a composition. Many of us have worked with good writers who “know how to think about word order and its relationship with the ideas they are trying to express” (Scott, 2004). We also know struggling writers who often have difficulty using different syntactical structures to express relationships among words within and between sentences. An increasing emphasis on writing proficiency, including a student’s ability to express understanding of reading, should prompt us to explicitly teach students how to translate thoughts and ideas into sentences.

Connections to Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension similarly demands the integration of multiple processes and skills, many of which overlap with writing. One critical component of language processing, necessary for constructing meaning, is the interpretation of sentences. As readers recognize and retrieve the meaning of individual words, they also need to “work out the syntactic structure and sense of the sentence” (Cain, 2010).

As teachers, we have worked with “good readers” who know how to “work with the words” within sentences to identify the ideas and then, to integrate them to make sense of the text. We have also witnessed an inability to do so in some of our students. While the focus of comprehension is often on the text, we need reminders that “sentences one by one communicate the ideas that eventually add up to gist” of a text (Scott, 2004).

Reading comprehension instruction often overlooks sentence comprehension. Kate Cain (2012) tells us the foundation for discourse comprehension rests on an understanding of word and sentence meaning and, when flawed, can be a potential source of comprehension difficulties. While we understand how word meaning (semantics) contributes directly to comprehension, similarly recognizing the role of syntactical structures (parts of speech, phrases, clauses, types of sentences, and cohesive ties) is essential.

Some may be cringing again as I connect syntax (AKA grammar) to comprehension. Rest assured, I am not an advocate for teaching students syntax from a “mechanical” or “memorization” perspective. Rather, I advocate that educators consider how to integrate semantics and syntax instruction by considering respective contributions to meaning. For example, I would not teach parts of speech and their role in sentences without connecting their function to meaning. We know that nouns are “namers,” but they also answer the questions “who or what.”

So, let’s revisit the idea of diagramming sentences.  This, along with other explicit sentence-based activities—such as sentence combining and anagrams—can be used to foster sentence composition and comprehension, but only if we, as teachers, are clear on the purpose: to facilitate the student’s ability to extract and construct meaning. The bottom line is that sentence instruction should always focus on how syntax is used as a vehicle for conveying meaning.

One more thing …

Lastly, I want to acknowledge that both writing and reading proficiency require much more than developing the ability to construct and comprehend sentences. At the same time, I hope that I have conveyed that sentences are the busy bees of text, have been underappreciated, and require attention—particularly as you design and deliver comprehension instruction.

Nancy Hennessy, M.Ed., LDT-C, is an educational consultant and past president of the International Dyslexia Association (IDA). She is also an experienced teacher and administrator. While in public schools, Hennessy provided leadership in the development of innovative programming for special needs students, a statewide revision of special education code, and an award-winning professional development initiative. She is an international presenter, national LETRS trainer, and coauthor of LETRS Module 6: Digging for Meaning: Teaching Text Comprehension (Second Edition) with Dr. Louisa Moats.


Burns Florey, K. (2006). Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and the Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences. Boston, MA: Harcourt Publishers.

Cain, K. (2012). Reading Development and Difficulties. United Kingdom: John Wiley Publishers

Scott, C. (2004). Syntactic contributions to literacy development. In C. Stone, E. Silliman, B. Ehren, & K. Apel (Eds.) Handbook of Language and Literacy: Development  & Disorders (pp. 340-362). New York: Guilford Press.

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