It’s a New School Year: Confessions of Your Classroom Teacher

By Kathleen Sullivan

A new school year is upon us, so many students in Malden are feeling high anxiety.  We all remember that night before school started when we were students ourselves. We spent our last few weeks of summer vacation preparing for school.  There was the excitement of getting our new school supplies and going shopping for new clothes and shoes. Our emotions were mixed.  We felt a sense of sadness that summer was ending and we felt excitement to see our friends.  Those emotions were coupled with some apprehension about meeting our new classmates and teachers, and beginning a new school year.

Well, here is the truth, teachers feel that same apprehension and anxiety. We get nervous about setting up our classrooms so they’re just right for our students.  We worry about getting to know our new students and their families.  Our stomachs are in knots and we wake up at night thinking about the upcoming school year, the challenges we will face reaching all of our students’ academic learning styles, and creating lessons that will engage our students as well as reflect their new knowledge in standardized testing for which we are all accountable.  There is something bigger than all this though.  The students who walk through our doors on that first day of school are our students and they are our kids.  We will be connected to these individuals for the rest of our lives because they spent time in our classroom.

During an academic school year, students and teachers spend hundreds of hours together.  We share our students’ successes, failures, joys, and their sorrows.

So there it is. Students and teachers share the same anticipation, anxiety, and excitement as a new school year approaches. We’re connected by these shared emotions. We know from experience that once that bell rings on that first day, the school year will be in motion and much of our anxiety and apprehension will subside as we become submerged in teaching, learning, and getting know each other.  School year 2013-2014, ready or not, here we come.

Kathleen SullivanKathleen Sullivan teaches 5th grade science at a public school in Malden, Mass.

Giftedness in our Classrooms: Remove the Ceiling and Give Them Room to Grow

By Sara Arnold

Kids are insightful; if you give them busy work, they immediately recognize it for what it is.  But if you engage them in authentic, real-life problem solving at high levels of challenge, they know you value and respect them.  Barbara Blackburn

I am a Talented and Gifted (TAG) Resource specialist for an urban school in Iowa.  I serve students in grades two to five with a pullout model, as well as being a gifted curriculum resource for classroom teachers.  Gifted students are gifted all day, every day.  It is our obligation to serve their academic needs consistently.

Although most gifted students can master the Common Core State Standards rapidly, many of them are falling behind.  Here are two stories of gifted students who are struggling with being gifted in their current educational setting. As educators, our job is to enhance and facilitate their educational possibilities, not limit their academic growth,

Dorothy,* a third grade student in an urban school, is academically gifted based on the results of normed-referenced assessments. She has already mastered the majority of the material covered in her classroom.  She understands multiplication and division, while fellow classmates are still working on addition and subtraction.  Negative behaviors increase.  She makes fun of other students because of their academic inabilities and tends to bully her peers.  One day while working with her, the topic of fractions came up.  She knew how to add fractions with common denominators, but when I asked her if she knew how to multiply fractions, her response was, “Oh, that’s too hard.”  Within ten minutes of instruction, she was able to multiply and divide fractions with common and uncommon denominators.  Later in the hallway, she thanked me for the instruction.  I had just quenched her thirst for academic knowledge.  
The question is how long had she been dehydrated?

Courtney* is a 5th grade academically gifted student in an urban school.  School has always been easy for her and she hasn’t had to work hard to get good grades.  As a result, she doesn’t challenge herself to learn new content.   When given the opportunity to do an independent study project, she puts forth limited effort. Because she has not been challenged in the classroom, it has led to academic underachievement.  How can we change this learned behavior?  Who is responsible for these behaviors: the student or the instructor?

Both of these stories are occurring not only in the schools I serve, but in schools all over the country.  It is our obligation to provide gifted students with appropriate academic content based on their ability level.  Gifted students need to be challenged and stimulated by an advanced and enriched curriculum that is above their current level of functioning in each area of learning (VanTassel-Baska, 2003). Many gifted students will not make academic progress during any given year unless interventions occur. (Winebrenner and Brulles, 2008)

There are many things that we can do as educators to help our gifted students feel successful in our classrooms.  Here are four ways to promote learning for all students in your classroom.

Differentiation is one way educators can provide academically appropriate content to their gifted students within their classroom. It means tailoring instruction to meet individual needs.  Teachers can differentiate content, process, or products.  It is imperative that teachers pre-assess students; this allows educators to determine the current knowledge of each student.  With the pre-assessment, teachers can then adapt their instruction based on the needs of the child.

Curriculum compacting can provide content to students over a shorter period of time.  Many gifted students can master the content only after a few exposures. Providing gifted students with a condensed version of the curriculum will expose them to the content and allow them to academically advance at an appropriate speed for their ability level.

Content acceleration is another way for gifted students to receive academically appropriate content.  Some students are academically gifted in a specific content area: math, reading, science, etc.  Teachers can give students an end of the year assessment.   If they have mastered the majority of the content, it is appropriate to provide content acceleration for the student.  For example, if a third grade student has mastered the third grade math standards, the child could go to fourth grade for their math instruction.  It is important to have a plan for future years.  Schedules and school location (elementary/middle school) can limit the feasibility of content acceleration, but this can be a successful alternative for gifted students if a well-developed plan is in place.

Grade level acceleration is a fourth possibility, if the child is gifted in multiple content areas.  Using the Iowa acceleration scale is an effective guide for teachers and parents to decide if acceleration is appropriate for the child.  In a recent interview, Joyce Van Tassel Baska stressed there is no research to prove that grade acceleration is harmful to student development.   Family and school support needs to be in place in order to provide a successful acceleration experience for the child.

Before I received my TAG endorsement, I had many misconceptions about gifted students and made mistakes as a teacher.  For example, I now know that pairing a gifted child with a low-ability student is a poor use of student time.  Some gifted students are unable to explain what their brain does automatically.  As a result, gifted students need to be paired with similar ability students.  Another important lesson I learned was that my biggest behavior challenges were high ability students who were bored. I was failing to challenge them in my classroom; I was getting in their way.

All of our students deserve to feel academic success in the classroom. If we meet the educational needs of our gifted students, we can remove their limitations and help them recognize their true potential.

* The students’ names have been changed.

Sara Arnold teaches elementary gifted and talented students in Iowa’s Cedar Rapids Public Schools. She participated in the VIVA ISEA Teachers Idea Exchange.

Teaching: A Social Profession

By James Kobialka

The best way to create an ethos of respect and community in a school is to practice Zero Indifference.

This is a term I borrowed from my time as a camp counselor for Center for Talented Youth (CTY). You could also call it constant vigilance, active empathy, constant enforcement, or even just being nosy.

Zero Indifference means that you don’t let anything slide. You don’t ignore two kids punching each other because “they always do.” You don’t let that girl cry quietly in the corner because you’re uncomfortable with talking to her. You don’t pretend not to see those cigarettes in a student’s pocket or those headphones in their ears.

That second example is the key one. A principal I once met told a story of seeing one of his youth out of sorts for a few days – not passing in homework, generally distressed, uncooperative. After the third day, he confronted the student: “What’s going on? Why haven’t you been doing your work? I’m disappointed in you.”

“Mister, my house burned down. I’ve been wearing the same clothes for three days. I don’t care about my homework right now.”

Let’s process that. Three days of indifference. Three days of letting it slide. Three days of failing to accommodate a student in the midst of crisis, capped off by a moment of embarrassment, regret, anger.

Sometimes I hear from teachers, “It’s not my problem.”

That gets to me almost as much as “I can’t.” Almost as much as “I hate that kid.”

They are all our children. They are all our problems, our joys, ours to help.

The most important skill to teach teachers – new and old – is empathy. This is the ability to bend the rules of the day for the student, to share information, to let guidance counselors know, and to engage students when they are troubled.

Here are some useful phrases:

“You seem a bit out of it today. What’s up? How can I help?”

“If something’s going on, you can talk to me or to the guidance counselor about it, but sitting here doing nothing doesn’t help anyone.”

“Go take a break. Grab a drink, wash your face, and come back. We’ll chat at the end of the period.”

Teaching is a soulful profession. We teach people. We don’t teach subjects. It’s something worth remembering and worth acting on every day. Don’t let things slide; don’t let things snowball. Be a teacher of life.

James Kobialka teaches Science and English in Worcester, Mass.

Connections for Learning: Unifying the Social and Academic Curriculum in Minneapolis Public Schools 

Download Full Report as a PDF

In March 2013, the VIVA Minneapolis Teachers Idea Exchange invited 5,000 K–12th grade teachers and education support professionals working in Minneapolis public schools to share their perspectives and experiences about maintaining a successful learning culture while addressing behavioral and discipline issues in their classrooms. They were invited to share their ideas in response to this question:  “What are the most effective strategies you’ve used that have had a positive impact on student behavior? What would best help students who grapple with behavior issues?  What changes need to be made at the building level? What kind of support or professional development should the district provide so individual teachers can build a positive learning environment in their classroom?”

In response, 286 members added 70 new ideas and shared 146 comments with one another.

Download a copy of Connections for Learning: Unifying the Social and Academic Curriculum in Minneapolis Public Schools.

Equal Opportunity in Kindergarten

By Beth Hillerns

We want all of our children to be successful in school. As a parent, I want that for my own children. As a teacher, I know the parents and families I work with want that for their children. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposed budget, along with two bills recently introduced in the State House (HF105 and HF821), would help our state’s students reach that goal by providing funding for all-day, every-day kindergarten.

As committed as parents are to their children, some students don’t enter school with the tools they need to be successful in the classroom. They may not have the exposure to language and literacy that children in homes with highly educated parents have. One thing we can do to counteract their lack of readiness is to provide students with a literacy-rich environment in preschool and kindergarten. And while pre-school programs are important, Minnesota needs to start by fully funding all-day, every-day kindergarten.

Currently, our districts are only reimbursed for a half day of kindergarten. This lack of funding means that districts generally have three options: 1) offer only half-day kindergarten (or full-day, every-other-day kindergarten); 2) offer full-day kindergarten but use part of the general-education fund to pay for it; or 3) offer both full-day and half-time kindergarten and charge for the second half of a full-day program.

All of these are problematic and only serve to perpetuate the achievement gap. Many districts in high-poverty areas choose to offer full-day kindergarten at no charge to parents, but they are reimbursed by the state for only about half of the cost. Imagine what they could do if the state fully funded kindergarten and they could reallocate those funds.

Five years ago when my son was four, we began looking at kindergarten programs and found that the district we lived in would charge us for a full-day program. Yet, even if we were willing to pay for it, there was no guarantee of admittance. All parents who willing to pay the fee were entered into a lottery, making the fee and the lottery barriers to educational opportunity and steeping the system in inequality.

As a working mother, I wanted my child in a high-quality, full-day kindergarten program. To make that happen, I ended up driving him 30 miles away to a district where we didn’t live. The long car ride through traffic to a place without his neighborhood friends was difficult, but I believe the academic and social benefits of the full-day kindergarten program were worth it.

Full-day kindergarten options should be the norm for all students. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, full-day kindergarten has numerous benefits, including better attendance, higher academic achievement, enhanced behavioral and social development, and an easier transition to first grade. Minnesota can and should provide those benefits to its students.

Most of us think of the K-12 experience as beginning at age 5, but the truth is it begins in unequal opportunity without a full-day experience for every child. We need our legislators to take another step towards equal educational opportunity: Fully fund all-day, every-day kindergarten for all students.


Beth Hillerns teaches Title I at East Central Elementary School near Sandstone, Minn. She has taught for the past 10 years in urban, suburban, and rural schools in Texas and Minnesota.




A Call for Investment: Our Schools, Our Children, Our Future

By Kathleen Sullivan

Teaching is challenging, rewarding, exciting, exhausting, and never boring. Actually, every day is a new adventure. Lately, I’ve been struggling; Not with teaching students, but with everything else that goes along with being a teacher in a needy urban district where resources are stretched thin.

I am struggling with teaching well over 100 children a day while wearing so many other hats. Our students walk through our doors saddled with burdens. Some children are from difficult home lives, some are homeless. Others have arrived on our doorstep from war-torn nations, refugee camps, or from countries of sheer chaos. Students often show up hungry. Others are in need of shoes and clothes. Some are grieving the loss of a parent, which vary from parents who have no contact with their children, to parents who have died or been killed, to parents who have been lost to addiction, mental illness, or incarceration.

Even so, teaching is easy compared to the mental anguish and emotional drain of serving as counselor to children who are emotionally scarred. Our social worker/adjustment counselor oversees 600 students four days a week. She has a consistent caseload of 40 students, and an additional 10 plus extra students each day to tend to as each daily crisis arises. If you do the math, you will understand that teachers absorb much of the pain and agony some students bring to school with them each day.

In addition to students in crisis, we are also teaching students with intellectual, emotional and mental disorders with limited special education support in our classrooms. I love my job, I love my students, but I am exhausted and drained. If teachers are to prevail at making every child successful, we need help in our classrooms. We need help to meet the needs of our kids who are experiencing personal and emotional crisis. We need special education assistance for our students who need individual support.

When I think about what our struggling students lack, I have come to realize that no matter what their burdens are, they are each lacking consistency. School is their safety net. School is their refuge. Each day, for eight hours, they are safe. They have structure and they are surrounded by people who want them to grow into productive, conscientious, caring adults. For our students to succeed, they need assistance within the walls of that refuge.

Teachers will teach all students. Teachers will accommodate workloads and differentiate instruction to reach all types of learners. We will provide kindness, empathy, and respect. We step in when counselors are not readily available to children in crisis. When special education students are not getting enough individual attention, teachers spend extra time to meet the needs of these students and give them the academic support they need to make gains. How do we continue to spread ourselves to meet the needs of all our students?

Should we invest in staffing counseling within our schools so that counselors have reasonable caseloads of students and teachers can teach? Should we rethink how special education services are delivered by special education teachers so that students are properly supported, and budget appropriately?  Should we have additional staff to teach and support the large number of English language learners so that they are successful in meeting standards?

The answer is yes. We need to invest in our kids by providing them with access to counseling. We need to invest in our kids by providing our special needs students with specialized teachers working alongside general education teachers in their classrooms. All children can learn with the proper emotional and academic support no matter what their challenges. Some may learn differently, at a slower pace, or at different levels, but they can achieve if we provide the proper support.  We must support our students.


Kathleen Sullivan teaches 5th grade science at a public school in Malden, Massachusetts.

Why rely on Test Companies, Instead of Teachers, to Create Assessments?

By Jessica Choi

Joshua Starr, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) which consistently ranks in U.S. News and World Report’s top 100 high schools, recently said that “a good way to create assessments for Common Core-aligned curriculum would be to crowd-source the development and let teachers design them rather than have corporations do it.”

Why is this a revolutionary idea?

Teachers assess students every day. Why weren’t teachers the obvious choice to write the Common Core assessments? Don’t we trust teachers to create quality tests?

Teachers CAN Write Quality Tests
While teaching for MCPS, I was hired to help write the ESOL 4 semester exams. It was an honor.

Teachers from different backgrounds, different levels of teaching experience, and different teaching styles came together over the summer to create the end of semester exams. We were trained and had an advisor who kept us on track. We studied the standards and worked in teams to develop questions for each of the standards. The hardest part was developing questions that would be fair to students of different races, different socio-economic statuses, and students with special needs.  In our group, there were teachers who taught each of those populations, so we worked together to modify questions so that they would be fair for all of our students.

Revision is the Most Important Part
The test went through editing and a formal review process before it was given to students. After the first administration of the test, teachers were asked to send their students’ results for each question and any comments or suggestions they had to the test facilitator.

Maybe ESOL teachers are just super-awesome (as I have often suspected), but I think this would happen in other departments too: ESOL teachers loved giving feedback on the exams. That year and every year after, teachers offered lots of comments, corrections, and suggestions for new questions. Teachers felt empowered because they were not just being told what to do; their professional opinion was being respected.

Although the test writers had done everything we could have to make a fair and balanced test, when the test was administered teachers found questions that were not fair. Those questions were dismissed from the students’ final scores and they were revised for the following year’s test.

How do corporations revise their test questions each year? All the secrecy surrounding test creation means that teachers (the test administrators) are never asked what problems they observed or how they would revise the test for the following year. This seems like a missed opportunity for creating a truly fair and balanced assessment.

Crowd-sourcing Teachers
Teachers are essential to test revision. After every administration of the Common Core assessments, teachers should be asked for comments and corrections so that the questions can be revised appropriately.

Teachers could also be an indispensable part of test creation. Teachers could choose the best questions written by test companies for each standard or they could write their own questions for the assessments.

Giving teachers a voice in the tests they have to administer motivates them to take ownership of the assessments and of their outcomes.

Crowd-sourcing Students
Students could also create good questions for the Common Core assessments if given the right directions and incentives.

Teachers often ask students to write sample test questions to review for tests. Sometimes teachers use the questions students have written as the real test questions. I think students would create appropriate questions if awards were given for the best ones.

If students write the questions, then teachers could choose the best ones for each standard.

The Role of Test Companies
Test companies should serve as a facilitator. We need an outside company to manage the technology, analyze the data, choose the final questions and keep the final product a secret before the test.

But test companies currently operate in an academic utopia where they create assessments based on how students should interpret questions. Tests need to be written by teachers who have a better understanding of how students will interpret questions.

What do you think? Could students and teachers create better assessments than corporations?

One Teacher’s Take on How to Stop the Violence

VIVA Teacher Leader Karon Stewart is a middle school math teacher in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago. Her students face significant challenges, not the least of which is surviving the violence in the neighborhoods. Stewart talks eloquently about the violence and how it affects her students and herself. It was the centerpiece of her speech when she was invited to introduce Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at a recent meeting of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

One of Stewart’s students was shot  while Duncan still served as head of the Chicago Public Schools. She reminded him of that incident and told the audience of Duncan’s personal response to her email asking for help in getting information about the condition of the student, who at the time he was presumed dead. After his speech, Duncan asked Stewart to share her ideas for combating the overwhelming and seemingly intractable challenge of ending violence against youth in America. This is what she told him:

Dear Secretary Duncan,

It was an honor to introduce you to the “Teacher Voice” conference participants.  At that time, you charged me with the task of suggesting ways to stop the violence in the Chicago. I really wish I had the answers. We feel each other’s pain. I am always devastated by the level of violence I see. Unfortunately, I cannot allow my emotions to sidetrack me from what I am paid to do: teach middle-school math. Even in saying that, I am in danger of becoming as anesthetized as my students, and I applaud you for always bringing this travesty to the forefront.

I will share my opinion.

Urgent /Long Term

Parents are the key factor and we have to find ways to support them in their efforts to raise their children.  I also believe that when students have chronic behavioral or discipline issues, their parents should be mandated to attend regular conferences that include a community service component. Finally, something has to be done to help children in homes with parents who are substance abusers. It appears that children who commit violent acts are more likely to be in this demographic.

Short Term

Expand the Chicago Park District programs, but you have to make it a safer place in some areas. Increase police presence in more positive ways. For example, have Police District teams challenge teams of teachers from the schools in their district to bi-annual basketball games. The “MVP’s” from these teams would then play student stars.

Expand the G.R.E.A.T program (Gang Resistance Education and Training). It was very effective at my school. The woman officers squashed a really violent series of altercations between about 16 7th and 8th grade girls.

Bring back Camp Hastings, the YMCA camp that gave students a chance to get out of the neighborhood for a week and participate in a plethora of outdoor activities.

Mentoring Programs

One of my students was selected in the Barbie I Can Be…Mentee Search and attended the White House Project awards ceremony in New York. She returned more purposeful. She became a classroom leader and inspired several other students to be successful.

I have also heard very good things about the Steve Harvey program. That program offers a Mentoring Weekend to break the misguided traits of manhood and introduce role models who provide positive examples of manhood.

Socio – Emotional Learning and Arts Programs

Parents, students, and teachers in challenging communities need to participate in programs that include an effective conflict resolution component.

Empower Communities

Campaign to end the “Snitches get Stitches” mentality so people will not be afraid to fight against abusive conditions. Utilize veterans in these programs. They are not afraid of the gangs and they push back!

Challenge potential gang members to make a positive impact on their communities. Penalties for petty crimes should include more extensive community service options, like cleaning vacant lots, assisting victims of violent crimes, etc. Many students, unfortunately, identify with a gang without actually participating in criminal activities. I understand this, but the gang mentality has to be replaced with something positive.

Update on my student who was shot:

My concern for this student began right after I added a picture of him and  two other boys to my Donors Choose web page. Another teacher said he was going to be a hoodlum. Unfortunately I understand why the teacher said that. But my student was facing major obstacles. His mother was sick (she has since died and while his family was at the memorial, his house was robbed) and he had an enormous amount of unsupervised time. This is the biggest problem with children in depressed areas. I began tutoring that student and another Bond alumni every Wednesday, after school for three years. I, along with several other teachers in the building began rewarding them with gift cards when they received good grades, and eventually, making the honor roll.  They were successful at a school that was voted one of the worst schools in the US.  I am very proud of him. He overcame tremendous obstacles and setbacks, but it took THE WHOLE VILLAGE.


Karon Stewart, National Board Certified Teacher