literature circles

Libraries: The Heart of the School is Disappearing
Alan Haskvitz

According to recent research, the library and a qualified librarian can directly help in the improvement of student reading levels. Add to that the Common Core requirements for additional reading and writing using a variety of sources and you a clear cut case to keep the library at the heart of the school.

With cutbacks centered on libraraisn and libraries in many states, the reserch from Colorado and Pennsylvania makes it clear that the most important factor, outside of the classroom, was having a full-time librarian and this was particularly true at facilities that deal with groups that have low-income students as well as those with reading problems.

Unfortunatley, this research has not been enough to motivate some districts where funding is sparse. For example, in Los Angeles Unified School District half of the elementary and middle schools don’t have a librarian and in New York only half of the high schools have a librarian.

This map shows how far reaching the lack of funding for libraries goes. Some of the sites noted portray a dismal picture and is a must visit for teachers and parents.

On the other hand, this site shows how much money a library and technology center can save

Resources for Librarians and teachers
Excellent list from everything from lesson plans to book publishers

Outdated School Libraries:
What Can You Do to Update Yours?
Where to look for grants and how to make over existing libraries.

Fun, Joy and Flow: The Unloved Words in Education
by National Hall of Fame teacher Alan Haskvitz

There is little doubt that fun and education standards are mutually exclusive terms. The demands for teachers to produce students with higher test standards is universal. Indeed, Common Core is built on that premise. Better marks mean better students. Better students mean a richer nation. All this is well and good for some, but the real keys to student learning are three fold. First, the goal should be to teach the students how to learn. Secondly, to develop questioning skills and thus create citizens not easily swayed by propaganda, false advertising, and the cult of looks or personality. Finally, to promote a joy and love of learning.

Acres of forests land has been denuded to produce research on how students should learn. Everything from the types of learning to testing to insure learning to classifications for those who don’t learn well have been documented. Critical thinking is the common core of Common Core. Despite research that points out that brain growth in children would make critical thinking next to impossible for younger children. Regardless, it is always good to get students to ponder.

What I am rallying for is to retain, promote, and insist upon keeping the fun in education, and I don’t mean having class parties. Fun is the real backbone of learning. It does not have to be formal or take the form of a computer game. What it does have to have is for the ability of the child to be able to learn creatively in a manner that creates a flow or zone learning opportunities.

Brain research has shown that long term memory can be enhanced by fun activities. Many of you readers can’t remember a teacher’s name, but the field trip stays with you. Judy Willis writes that the fun of having students discover the answer encourages enthusiasm for the subject. I have often seen teachers use a “sponge” activity to start a lesson, but not many were imbued with fun. When I teach my students mnemonic devises I stress silly ones. They retain them better and are eager to share ones that they have created with others. Having students apply their learning skills trying to write out a line or two from a short story that would show the character was using propaganda and having them share it makes students more eager to read the story and research the types of propaganda that could be used in the created passage. This type of fun activity makes for a positive emotional state and the personalization of the material wakes up the student. Such fun based learning activities also reduce stress and high levels of stress can actually reduce the size of the hippocampus and thus impair memory. You can easily see that when an unsure student is asked a question and “freezes.”

Fun makes learning relevant to students. It is no longer a meaningless event, but one in which they enjoy putting their personal stamp on and sharing it with others thus building cooperation. By no means does that mean that every lesson must be fun reliant, but it does mean that having fun activities, as almost all teachers know, creates a better atmosphere for learning. Creativity surges during play related activities and makes the lessons more pleasurable and stimulating.
The fun lessons could extend to all classes and to assignments at home. For example, the student could read about a character in history and explain it to his parent or guardian and have them write a note explaining why this historical person was absent from class. Sure, the answers might be simple: I am dead. But the lesson about the person should be long lasting for all involved. And asking the students to share could bring about additional learning possibilities.

Having fun and working do not have to be opposites in the classroom or in life. Someone in charge, or a rich person who thinks being rich qualifies him or her to influence decisions about education, should be given a remedial class on the benefits of play on the human body and mind and learning. Why not have students create their own games for physical education classes? In science class how about having students studying the periodic element table create comic books about their element? In Language Arts class use as a sponge activity to enhance the student’s imagination with real life stories.

The point is that having fun in class contributes to the essence of low in learning and can be a positive way to reinforce lessons, encourage learning, and to reduce stress. Every college teaching preparation program should have at least one section on how to make fun lessons. At schools across the country the principal should ask the teachers to share their fun lessons and encourage them to develop new ones. Administration reviews should also include a comment on the flow of the lesson placing the emphasis on the way the students reacted to the lesson and appeared to be motivated by it.

Above all it must be remembered that fun does not mean party time or joke telling. Fun and enjoyment of a lesson must result in learning and offers students intrinsic motivation. It means having some lessons that provide learning in a fun way. University of Chicago professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and found the fun is not easy to define, but he listed some attributes. Among his findings was that there is a difference between pleasure and enjoyment and that the latter is far longer lasting and needs more skill. Enjoyment is relaxing and can result in a situation where time is no longer an element of consideration. Lessons that find the class so involved in a fun learning activity that the end of the period finds them scurrying to find their book bags with some reluctance is something most teachers can relate to and is evidence that a fun lesson need not include laughter.

The bottom line is that learning should provide pleasure regardless of the topic. The motivation must come from within, but the teacher needs to find the lesson that will push this motivation into a product without undue coercion. Preparing for a test by reviewing may result in short term learning, but having the students creating their own questions to give to others makes the learning more enjoyable with a myriad of ways to provide longer lasting retention.
Learn by doing is an excellent way to instill this flow into a lesson. For example, the students read a chapter of a book and teams are chosen to rewrite the chapter from another viewpoint and all of the narration must be written in one syllable words. I have found that the best way to improve flow is to have the students create something tangible to share. It does require higher level thinking skills and thus promotes critical thinking, but for many students the lessons needed to create the item become more ingrained and the experience becomes more pleasurable.

Fun, joy and flow are as related as peanut butter and jam. They go together. Yes, they can be separated, but they aren’t as good. When a student has fun learning it turns to joy and is the best reward of all, intrinsic. That fun and joy result in a flow of pride, enjoyment and appreciation of learning, and long term changes in attitude. Every subject needs to be rethought. Common Core does supply the basics, it is the creative teacher that needs to supply the student centered learning that achieves the goal.

Finally, don’ t reinvent the wheel. There is an abundance of lessons that can be customized to fit your needs after some fine tuning. Sharing what you have done with others also can provide feedback to improve your lesson. Above all, make learning fun even if it figuratively kills your old lessons.

Discipline: training that perfects the mental faculties

Ten Skills Every Student Needs and You Probably Don’t Have Time to Teach
by National Hall of Fame Teacher Alan Haskvitz

After 40 years of teaching there comes a time when you want to just yell at the curriculum designers and textbook publishers that they have the cart before the horse. Teachers need to be allowed to spend more time teaching students how to learn and less on preparing for a test which measures nothing applicable in the real world.

Correct me if I am wrong, but I feel that every teacher would love to really teach students how to get ready for the challenges ahead of them and use the curriculum as a stepping stone to that goal. Over the years my students always were at the top in the State in terms of standardized testing. Indeed, some of them had perfect scores. The problem was I was teaching them how to take the test. Fortunately, I as able to shorten the material required for the course by removing those elements I though were essentially chaff so that I could teach them essential skills. Essentially, I started by teaching them how to discipline themselves. This worked so well that I still get letters from students, some decades after they were in my class, thanking me for teaching them for life. I have never gotten a letter thanking me for teaching them the Monroe Doctrine.

Here is the list and it far from complete, which are skills that need to be taught. Feel free to comment and add your own.

Learning how to Learn

Developing a love for learning is essential for any educator. It is the most important lesson a teacher can impart to a student and it is also the most difficult. A teacher may have to face a variety of hindrances from lack of parental care, nutritional and emotional problems, and even severe mental concerns. Regardless, there needs to be an effort and the best way is to become a facilitator by prodding, motivating, and providing a diverse array of learning materials to challenge the student to learn for themselves. Most often the textbook, frequently filled with data with little relevance to the student, is the main focus of instruction. And, perhaps, that is the way it must be if the goal is a test that measures improvement in the acquisition of this data. The teacher can feel confident as he or she has covered the material by sticking to the textbook. Motivational, hardly, but that is how teachers are frequently judged. There is another way to do this, but it is time consuming and requires a multitude of rubrics. Providing a variety of materials and having the students learn from them is an arduous task. However, once it is done a teacher can spend the rest of years modifying, adding, and individualizing lessons to meet the needs of the students. ReachEveryChild (cited below) provides a variety of sources for this free material and is an excellent place to start individualization.

The second part of learning how to learn based on whether the student is an auditory, visual or kinetic learner and how to use these to their advantage. It is impossible for a teacher to use all of these methods when presenting lessons, but a student can create their own lessons to help them acquire the knowledge. In my classes I have students create poems, songs, graphic organizers and the Cornell note taking system. In this way there is a variety of methods for them to learn. I insist they use my linking and three transfer method of learning as well. The linking method makes them link what they are learning to other things they have learned and create a “learning tree” of it that they add to throughout the year. The three transfer method is to have students read the material, take notes on it, and transfer that material to another mode such as notecards. I also recommend presenting the answer to a question and have them supply the question. This is an excellent test of finding out what they know. It can be used in all subjects.

What is Valid

If you have time, giving the student a variety of short articles to read and asking them to figure out what would be the best way to judge this material is very worthwhile. This process should also include a study of the various types of propaganda, how to evaluate a website for bias, and stereotyping. That is a lot to swallow and so it is best as part of a school-year long program. If you are teaching social studies an ideal unit could be the differences of opinion between the South and the North about slavery. Learning how to learn is not just about the acquisition of skills, but for the student to acquire the ability to judge the material. One of the best tools to get students to read is Sherlock Holmes and the Sign of Four. As the students read the article they keep track of the characters and reach various conclusions as the teacher hands them the next page. The lesson makes them detectives, but more importantly allows them to learn for life. Seldom are we giving all the answers, but we must make decisions by what we know and judge what is valid.

Speed Reading, not just reading.

It isn’t any secret that the first basic skill is reading. But not just reading, but speed reading. Close reading will follow much more quickly if students can learn how to read rapidly. Reading for facts and reading for pleasure can both be more enjoyable if a student acquires the ability to focus on several words at one time. I taught second graders how to read over a 1000 words per minute at their grade level. The usual improvement was always 200 to 400 words per minute more and this was for language arts and social studies materials. Interestingly the comprehension improves as the speed level doubles as the student concentrates on the material. It is a win-win, but it most be reinforced until it becomes a habit and it takes at least 30 days for it to become a habit. Be warned that some students are resistant to it and so online speed reading sites can help them challenge themselves at their own rate.

Write at Grade Level +

The first thing on teaching a student to write is to explain the types of writing based on the purpose. Taking notes while on the phone or writing a compare and contrast essay may be different in length, but the ingredients are the same. However, for longer works you need to teach the student to write at grade level. I have the students write a one page paper on their favorite vacation either real or imagined. Next, I have them underline all the one syllable words. After that they circle any word that they have not known since primary school. The Fry Formula is applied and the students record their writing scores. They is always silence as the students realize that they are writing at several grades below grade level. Now, that isn’t necessarily bad, but it does force them to expand their vocabulary and that is good. I always have a few Thesaurus books on hand and show them how to use them. The results are immediate and the students not only improve their writing, but improve their thinking and organizational skills as well as they strive to improve. My article (citation below) provides an in-depth look at this successful practice that has enabled my students to win numerous writing competitions.

Teach Them to be Journalist

This vital profession is based on training that every student needs. The ability to communicate, to judge facts, and to influence others with their work. There is no other profession that is so vital for students to learn from because it is essentially what they are going to do nearly every day of their life. A good journalist seeks out evidence and judges it. They write using the who, what, when, where, why, and how approach. They use the inverted triangle that helps them organize facts. Finally, it teaches them to be curious and ask questions and, very importantly, take good notes.

Teach Them to be Lawyers

Perhaps, oversimplifying, but lawyers earn them living by researching and providing evidence that their cause is correct. This requires an examination of evidence and organization. This is another valuable trait that can help students of all ages. For example, was George Washington was a good president? Can you prove it? Can you provide evidence that he was not so good? Some may call this critical thinking, but that type of thinking can not really be utilized until a student is able to have a variety of experiences that enable them to make a critical decision. Thus using the basic skills of an attorney in proving a point and providing evidence to that end are skills they are going to need to write essays persuasive and expository essays and in life.

Be Accountable

At the beginning of the school year I ask the students to look around the room and, without naming names, tell me how many other students they would hire to work for them based on the knowledge that they wanted good workers. After that I ask them to write that number down, fold the paper, and place it in a basket. I take out the numbers and place them on the board to come out with an average. In almost every case it is ten percent of the students or less. That means that the others already have a reputation of not being good workers. The reason for this is that many students simply do not hold themselves accountable. Immediate gratification, poor parenting, the need for quick teacher assessment with little assessment of the assessment, all help feed a “who cares” mentality. This results in large scale cheating with little fear of consequence. Research has overwhelming shown that rewards must be intrinsic to be a lasting value. If students are to be held accountable there must be a reward system that works and entices parent buy-in.
People Skills

We aren’t talking about cooperative learning, we are talking about the ability to get along with others regardless of differences. We are talking about good manners, social skills, negotiating skills, and the ability to work together to create a common goal. Skills as basic as how to talk to people on the phone, how to ask permission, or even showing remorse or concern are missing and yet vital for life.

Handling Emergencies
Handling emergencies is also seldom taught at school. Yes, fire drills are held, but what value are they to the student when a fire really occurs elsewhere? My students wrote and had published in the American Fire Journal the problems with school fire drills in the hopes of enlightening others. School administrators essentially ignored it because it wasn’t an area to be tested. Sad, because the issues the students brought up were important. For example, why does the fire extinguisher stay in the room during a fire drill? Why do the students stand up in rows when an explosion could knock them over? Who knows where the dangerous chemicals are? What do the various colored helmets that firemen wear mean? Needless to say, handling emergencies is a vital skill. Why doesn’t every student know CPR? How to stop bleeding? Or to identify a person having a “fit” and knowing how to act? Taking this a step further, how to teach students not to panic and to learn how to identify people should be taught. But, who has the time?

Skills for life

Setting realistic goals, identifying propaganda and bias, budgeting time, operating a computer and touch typing, triage work assignments, handling money and investments, observation skills, where to find information and measure its accuracy, and learning how to listen can all be incorporated in the curriculum. Each of these carry lifelong importance and all can and have been taught within the curriculum if there is time. There are free units of study on almost all of these areas available. The teacher needs to be given the time and flexibility to personalize them for their class.

Before I get off my high horse I must add one more thing and that is for the student to learn how to be happy. My friend Larry Martz, an editor with Newsweek, wrote in his book Making Schools Better, about the small bite principle. This is a simple plan where small strides can result in large gains. An educator who just takes one of these ideas to heart could make a huge difference knowing well that it is at least as significant as anything on a standardized test.

Why Students Cheat

Making Schools Better

Car Rating Site

Government fuel economy site

How to Improve Student Writing

Student speed reading lessons
There are others

Using the Inverted Triangle

Guided reading

By National Hall of Fame Educator Alan Haskvitz

For young and ESL readers guided reading presents a supportive and remediative form of learning to read that offers students the benefits of sharing accomplishments and overcoming weaknesses. It takes time to set-up, needs consistency, and a lot of time, but once the method is mastered it can nearly run itself if the necessary resources are available. Below are some of the best ones I could find about reading and guided reading.

Help for slow learning child

Strategies for motivating readers


Phonics and teaching reading

Videos about guided reading

A fairly comprehensive site

Most everything you need to know here from questioning skills to the time allocation.

A good how-to site

An excellent site for those just started using guided reading

It includes a full range of helpful resources.

A good wiki article

It explains how to do it and provides lesson ideas.

Making Guided Reading Multi-level

Introduces the four block method.

The Significant Benefits of Guided Reading

With Specific Instructions on How to Use Guided Reading

Learning Centers
Alan Haskvitz
The use of learning centers in elementary and some middle school classrooms has been fairly well accepted as common practice although the concept does have its critics. The rationale for the concerns are related to the time element in that some classes have a set amount of minutes while other teachers have the ability to set their own limits. Secondly is the amount of time making sure students are on task and also the amount of minutes given to setting up the centers. There is also a great deal of planning involved and the funding to equip the centers must be found. By far the most telling argument against learning centers is the fact that some teachers would rather do whole class assignments and feel that the extra work and smaller group activities aren’t to their liking. Add this to the need for many more grading rubrics and you have the adding noise level small groups seem to create and you have a difficult argument to overcome.
However, to those who enjoy the idea of learning centers I recommend starting small and moving ahead as you feel the need and acquire the resources. There are upsides to this type of learning environment, however, as always, no one methodology has ever been proven to be best for every situation. Go with your instincts, talk to teachers who have already invested time and most likely their own money, in creating centers.

Types of Learning Centers

The types of learning styles are numerous from those that deal with the major styles or learning such as auditory, tactual, and visual to those centered around enrichment and a combination of the two. These centers revolve around enrichment activities that focus on the main objective of the lesson and offer a variety of ways to learn those concepts. They are best used after the class as been exposed to a the main lesson and showed some knowledge of its ingredients. Typically, the centers provide more layers to the learning and a deeper understanding of the material. In an ideal world the learning centers combine both cooperative work and individual activities. For example, created a mural as a group and a poem about what was learned from the individual.

Another type of center is based on the mastering of a fact by performing tasks directly related to that acquisition. These skill centers enable a student to see the data in a variety of ways, but also promote repetition to inculcation of the important facts. The main difference between skill and enrichment is the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning. One requires the student to take a set piece of information and create projects from that in ever expanding circles of reasoning. The other is taking a fact and working to learn that fact as it applies to the situation. There is less freedom and more structure to the latter.

A learning center that allows a student creative freedom to express themselves with a limited amount of structure as to the subject matter is worth considering. They can be set up as discovery based where the materials are provided to allow the student to find a variety of answers to a question or even to produce their own questions. These centers are easy to construct once the teacher has a handle on the students’ interests. For example, if the class is studying ancient civilizations pictures, models, building blocks, and other materials can be provided as they decide different ways to construct weapons, protect cities, dress soldiers, and even build a modern day fortified city are all possible.

Here are some centers related to Language Arts that can provide more detail: A vocabulary center; a compare and contrast center for use with reading short stories; a diary center to reflect on what has been learned or to as biography for a character[ a test writing center where students create tests for others to take, an art center where poster are created to illustrate a point of learning or advertise a book or other work; mnemonic devise center where students create ways to help them memorize facts; and a linking center where students use diagrams to link previous learning to present ones.

The key to all good learning centers is the teacher’s ability to break down the lesson into smaller parts so that the learning centers can build on the initial objective. This added to the teacher’s knowledge of the students’ interests creates more dynamic learning opportunities and more on-task behavior. But keep in mind that designing grading rubrics for activities at all these centers is very difficult and might be considered as part of a larger grading package.


A WikEd piece on Learning Centers in the Middle School Classroom is an excellent short article on the pros and cons of using these centers as well as some suggestions and possible problems. A good read for all levels.

A Quality Primary Site
A primary learning center site that includes literacy station boards, a PowerPoint how to and even a variation of Bloom’s taxonomy in the form of a printable Marzano’s Level of Thinking that should be part of every teacher’s grading rubric and objectives.\
Classroom Organization and Workstations
A large link site with valuable ideas on how to arrange and use learning centers.
Kathy Schrock’s Guide for Learning Center
Some links, but mainly books on the topic from Amazon. Always check prices of these books with other sources before buying.
A Teacher Created Site with Fresh Ideas for Primary and Elementary levels.
How to Set Up Your Classroom
Ideas for all types of situations, including learning centers. Worth a quick read.

Another simple site with eight rules to follow when setting up your classroom.

What to consider before setting up the audio learning center. Includes dealing with media players, headphones, and more.

Sparklebox is great

This site has a variety of lessons on all areas of learning and most grade levels. Take your time and explore the many avenues that this free resource from Great Britain provides.

Interactive lessons that could be  used for computerized learning centers in many subject areas and elementary levels. Here are some examples:

Literacy Learning Center Ideas and more
Learning Center Ideas
More detail and some creative ones, too, that use multiple intelligences.

Cute and free printable sites to label learning centers

Learning circles used in an inner city classroom

These ideas can be used by all teachers. An extensive article with emphasis on cooperative learning.

Reading across America Resources free lessons and links

by Alan Haskvitz

I have the following free resources online:

Read Across America Links including Dr. Seuss
http://www.reacheve reading.html

Reading books and children’s reading literature sites
http://www.reacheve language/ english/reading. html
http://www.reacheve language/ other/reading. html

Phonics and teaching reading

http://www.reacheve feature/phonics. html
http://www.reacheve feature/more- phonics.html

How to motivate students to read
http://www.reacheve feature/motivati ng_readers. html

Literature circles
http://www.reacheve feature/lit_ circles.html

Primary teacher sites
http://www.reacheve feature/primary_ resources. html#3

Author sites language/ index.html

Printables feature/printabl es.html#read

This is a list of the most needed websites for educators. In contains links to everything from dealing with behavior problems to the law to assessments to finding jobs.

Because of the length of the free links they are listed here 

The site was developed by the only teacher in history who has been selected a Reader’s Digest Hero in Education, a NCSS national teacher of the Year, a USA Today All American first team teacher, the winner of the Freedom Foundation medal of honor, and the winner of the International Cherry Award for Great Teachers.

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