Book Review: The One World Schoolhouse

Let me first admit: I certainly know of the Khan Academy but I have never actually visited it or viewed any of the videos. I’ve followed some of the ways that Salman Khan’s video tutorials have sparked the Flipped Classroom concept, and some of the controversy that comes with both the academy and the flipped idea. But I am relatively outside of the loop on Khan. I offer up those words because I spent the plane ride back from Las Vegas devouring Salman Khan’s book about educational change, The One World Schoolhouse (Education Reimagined) , and found it very intriguing.

Readers of my blog know that I am a sucker for the “inside story” of ideas, and here, Khan brings us right to the beginning of his idea of using video tutorials to help his sixth grade niece understand some basic math concepts, which then spread to other family members, and soon, he found that thousands were viewing his videos on YouTube. For a long period of time, Khan Academy was little more than Khan, sitting in a converted closet, screencasting lessons and publishing them on Youtube. After discovering his passion for teaching, he quit his job as a hedgefund manager, did the tour of various foundations and companies (Google and Gates were intrigued), and then launched the Khan Academy as an experiment in education that is built on some assumptions that Khan has, including:

  • One size classrooms does not fit all students
  • Gaps in math understanding lead to bigger troubles later on
  • Systematic collection and interpretation of data allows teachers to target individual students
  • Education should be available for anyone, anywhere in the world

Now, I am one of those teachers who are part of what Khan sees as a problem. I teach in a traditional school, with one-hour blocks, where curriculum is often (but not always) built on time more than student mastery, and I have classes composed of students in age groups instead of mixed (he is against tracking and is passionate about how tracking students into honors and lower classes traps students, particularly in math). But I am open to change.

What Khan advocates is sweeping shifts in the way we see our learners, and his ideas include:

  • large classrooms (of up to 75 students) run by multiple teachers, bringing various expertise and talents into the pictures;
  • technology as a tool for reinforcement and understanding of student mastery, but also as a way to free up teachers to teach individuals;
  • accessible, affordable learning for students, no matter where they live in the world, so that everyone has a chance to reach up;
  • using summer as an extended learning period, and not as a “time off” from learning;
  • that standardized testing be more precise in testing what kids should know and have mastered (and how difficult that it when it comes to important things like creativity), and not about the test construction itself;
  • building fun and play into the curriculum so that topics like math don’t become rote learning that never really gets learned.

I think The One World Schoolhouse is worth your time and worth a read. Even if you have preconceptions of the Khan Academy concept (and more schools are now partnering with his organization to pilot the use of video tutorials and computer assessments), the book at least centers where Khan is coming from, and it encourages you to re-examine the “why” of our school system, which is built around a framework that Khan argues was constructed by chance and politics, and not necessarily the best interests in young learners.

Peace (in the schoolhouse),


Book Review: The Mark of Athena

I want to thank Rick Riordan. When my youngest son turned eight years old, he suddenly stopped wanting me to read to him. It broke my heart because I have spent years with him and his two older brothers, snuggled up, reading books together. But he now reads his own novels (He’s in the middle of the Harry Potter series). I wandered around the house, without a listener (the dog wouldn’t sit still).

But when The Mark of Athena — the most recent book in the Heroes of Olympus series by the prolific Riordan — came out, my son came back in. So, I owe ya one, Rick.  (Plus, he has learned how to count with Roman Numerals with the book. I’ve had him tell me the chapter number for each chapter, navigating the Roman symbols in a fun way). My son and I have spent the last two weeks completely immersed in the continuing saga of Percy Jackson and his demigod colleagues, including his girlfriend, Annabeth Chase (daughter of Athena), as they continue to move towards an epic battle against Gaia and the forces of Giants who want to overthrow Olympus and destroy the world.

(A side note: I ordered The Mark of Athena from Scholastic as part of our book club. When it came in, I had the book on my desk. I had more students come over and look at it and talk about it than any other book that has been on my desk this year. One girl was so excited about it, she did a happy dance across the front of the room. But then she realized that she did not have the book yet and her parents might not be able to get it for her anytime soon. I looked at her. I looked at the book. And I lent it to her to read. She zipped through it in five days. My son, who was waiting for the book, too, was not at all happy that I had lent it out before he got a look. BUT, the teacher in me trumped the parent in me.)

I won’t give the plot away, but this book centers on Annabeth Chase more than any other demigod, and that’s a good thing. She is smart, and powerful, and she uses her wits to survive a terrifying ordeal late in the book. And the seven demigods are mostly an interesting crew. The only one who does nothing for me is Jason, the son of Jupiter (ie, Zeus) who just seems like a dud to me. A powerful dud, but still, a dud. Still, Riordan finishes the book up in a very dramatic style, sending two demigods to an unknown future (I won’t say which two) in a classic cliffhanger moment. I got to the last page and my son looked at me.

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“What happens?”

“We’ll just have to wait ..” and we both looked to the back page, where the book advertises the next in the series — The House of Hades — which comes out in Fall 2013 “… for another year.”


You could say he’s hooked. Thanks, Rick.

Peace (in the adventure),


Book Review: Ungifted

Cover image, Pop

When my 12 year old son finished reading Ungifted by Gordon Korman (Mr. Prolific), two things happened. First, he said “this is the best book I read all summer” and then he asked if he could find a website that calculated his IQ. I let him give it a try, although we talked about the validity of online tools and about why IQ is just one measure of a person. But he was curious because Ungifted (read excerpts) centers around a school for the gifted, and what happens when a “regular student” enters their midst and messes things up, for the better.

Donovan Curtis is a troublemaker from the public school, who is always instigating one mess or another, and when one of his impulsive decisions goes completely awry and causes damage to his school, he finds himself unexpectedly and mistakenly in a school for gifted kids, thanks to the bumbling school superintendent. The story quickly becomes a rather predictable tale of the outsider changing the group in a good way while the group changes the outsider in a profound way. I enjoyed Korman’s storytelling, as always, but felt as if he dug up one too many stereotypes of nerdy kids, anxious school superintendents, and other characters that pepper this story.

The climax scene, involving a robot named Tin Man Metallica Squarepants (great name!) and a rival robot, Potzilla, is quite amusing and fused with high energy and humor, and Donovan shows some true colors as the story progresses as a friend with a large heart. Maybe that is what my son was talking about.

Peace (in the gift),



Book Review: Common Core Literacy Lesson Plans

I’ll be the first to admit that I get turned off by publishers who put Common Core in the title of their teaching resource books. I know it probably sells books off the shelves like crazy (particularly for administrators desperate to be doing something, anything, to shift forward with their staff), but I am sensitive to marketing gimmicks. So when Common Core Literacy Lesson Plans, by editor Lauren Davis, arrived at my house from the publisher (Eye on Education), I was wary (although they get points for honesty in advertising, since the title pretty much directly sums up the content of the book in a no-nonsense way).

Luckily, I looked inside.

The book, which is geared towards middle school, is chock full of well thought-out lesson plans, activities and handouts that might connect to the Common Core in overt ways, but are just as likely to be good ideas that teachers can pull into the classroom around reading and writing and research. In fact, the book is built around the main themes of the Common Core: Writing, Reading, Speaking/Listening, and Language. Even if your state and school is not a Common Core follower (mine is), that organizational strategy makes sense. Each section has a solid introduction, with tips for teachers to pay attention to, and many of the lessons have reproducible handouts (which are also available online, with a code from the book)

In fact, the day after I got Common Core Literacy Lesson Plans, I was using one of its resources with a lesson that I had designed for my sixth graders around paraphrasing, summarizing and quoting from direct sources. This tied in perfectly with our inquiry research project, and the handout that we used from the book included as short piece of reading and three questions, which led to some great discussions in class about how to use sources without the “copy/paste” mentality. Over the next few days, as my students were writing, I reminded them about our work around paraphrasing and summarizing.

I know I will be returning to this book when we get to our Digital Lives unit because some of the lessons and handouts here around evaluating websites and understanding the influence of media are part of the work that my students do to understand their role as writers and readers in the digital age. I’ll also be sharing it with my sixth grade teaching team as part of our Community of Practice meetings, as we talk about how to keep moving reading and writing and literacy more and more into the content areas.

Peace (outside the core),



Book Review: Energizing Research Reading & Writing

Talk about the right book at the right time. Christopher Lehman’s Energizing Research Reading & Writing dropped on my doorstep just days before I began launching into the start-of-the-year research project with my sixth grade students, and I feel as if I have had Lehman by my side just about every step of the way. Written in an engaging tone, and very teacher-friendly format, this overview of how to think anew about the benefits of research projects (and how to consider research through the Common Core focus) has so much good advice, it is difficult to know where to begin.

From the opening chapter that puts our ideas about research projects in perspective (particularly the way that technology and Internet access has reshaped the ways in which students find information) to helping students narrow down topic choices, considering and using sources without the “plagiarism” effect, the benefits of graphic organizers (or not), and the need to balance short-term research with long-term projects to develop skills.

I highly recommend Energizing Research Reading & Writing as a resource for any classroom that has research in its future (which, if you are a Common Core state is just about every upper elementary classroom through high school). I’ve already been sharing out some of the many charts that Lehman pulls together around the main ideas, in which he helpfully shares teaching strategies and ideas to differential the research instruction for a variety of students, and makes direct connections to content-area classroom research, too.

Peace (in the search),


Book Review: Wildwood

I got so completely and utterly sucked into this debut novel by Colin Meloy (of The Decemberists fame) that I didn’t want to stop reading. Gosh darn it, life got in the way. But I snuck my moments here and there, and when I was done with the story, I wished I had read Wildwood out loud to my son, and I still yet may do that (when we get through Rick Riordan’s Mark of Athena.) In Wildwood, Meloy has created a convincing and imaginative world of the Impassible Wilderness where adventure lies in store for our young heroes, Prue and Curtis. Prue’s baby brother has been kidnapped by a murder of crows, and she must go off to save him. Thus begins an adventure of a lifetime in a world not too far removed from our own, and yet magically distant from our own experiences.

I won’t give much away except to say that the book works as a pace perfect for read-aloud – with lots of action and adventure, and female protagonist in Prue that will connect to girls and boys. There’s much to love in this book. As soon as I ended Wildwood, with one of the characters remaining behind as the others returned to the regular world, I was on my Barnes and Noble account, calling up the second book: Under Wildwood, and placing an order. And I can’t wait to see what happens in that story.

Peace (in the wild woods of childhood),


Encouraging Home Literacy Moments: The Laptop Letters

Laptop Letters from Bill Zimmerman

Bill Zimmerman, whose Make Beliefs Comix site is a great place for students to begin to learn how to make web comics, has just put out a book called Laptop Letters. Zimmerman, whose aim is always to strengthen literacy, has assembled many of his comic-based writing prompts into one collection for parents as a way to encourage them to write to their own children. This is a great idea worth considering, as a parent and as a teacher connecting with parents.

And the book is offered up as a free ebook, too, from Zimmerman (although I think it might be even more valuable as a real, paper book where you could use the prompts and visuals a little easier.) Throughout the book, Zimmerman (with illustrator Tom Bloom) offers advice for how to write letters from parents to children, on themes of memories and experiences and shared hopes and dreams. There is a certain spiritual element to some of the prompts, but mostly, they are centered around sending forth a message of caring and compassion and thoughtfulness.

What’s fascinating is how Zimmerman is trying to frame the letters from a technology standpoint, noting that parents should find ways to reach their children through communication means that the children will read. In the introduction, he notes that while some bemoan the lack of traditional letter writing, many of us (adults and children) now use email and text messaging throughout the day, and why not use that medium to send words of love and support and wisdom to our kids?

I was wondering what my older boys would say if I started writing them stories via their cell phones. Would I be invading their space? Would they write back? We certainly have our struggles with our oldest son around communication. I guess I am not sure what the impact would be if I used some of the prompts here. And while Zimmerman notes that the power of these laptop letters is in the sharing of words and wisdom that last as family memories, there is such a temporary effect with text messages. Nothing gets saved beyond a moment of time. It had me wondering if texting is the medium for these literacy moments.

Still, one can’t argue that any suggestions for strengthening the bonds between parents and kids, particularly during this age where technology seems to cut off some of those interactions, is a good idea and one worth advocating. Zimmerman has provided a path for those kind of connections in Laptop Letters with some wonderful prompts to consider and starting points from which to begin.

Peace (in the letter),