Posts Tagged 'Bill Waychunas'

The Perfect Book for the Perfect Time


Claudette Colvin

Bill Waychunas

I was unpacking some boxes the other week and I came across a box (one of too many) that contains some of my “teaching stuff.” Every teacher has these boxes stashed somewhere, and I’ve even heard nightmare stories of former teachers finishing their careers with storage units full of these boxes. Anyways, in this particular box was a book that I used last year in my 9th grade Activism and Social Justice class called Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice written by Phillip Hoose. It’s a story about a teenage hero who’s name you probably don’t recognize. She was an African American teen living in Montgomery, Alabama, who stood up against segregation by refusing to give up a seat on a bus before Rosa Parks.

That’s right. Before Rosa. One could even argue that Claudette inspired Rosa.

As I pulled the book out of the box and flipped through the highlighted and dog-eared pages, I thought to myself about how perfectly relevant this book and this story are at this very moment in time. As we transition from Black History Month to Women’s History Month, here is Claudette Colvin, the perfect figure to bridge between the months as a Black woman (though she and this book are great for any month of the year). But even more striking to me is how after the rash of mass shootings which our country has recently faced, we’ve seen teens leading the charge towards justice, just as Claudette Colvin and so many other young people have done throughout history.

It might seem obvious by now: I’m recommending this book. If you are a middle school or high school social studies or ELA teacher, you need to consider using this book in your class. Heck, if you are a human being with a pulse, you should probably pick yourself up a copy. First, it’s a Newberry and National Book Award winner, so you know it’s good. Second, it’s only about 125 pages long and written in a style that lands somewhere between a narrative and non-fiction, making it the perfect length and genre for hitting those oh-so-important teaching standards.

But even more important is the way that this book speaks to students by allowing them to connect with a true story about the challenges and opportunities to make the world a better place. The discussions and writing that I saw from students when reading this book were truly incredible and even beyond the typical subjects that one would expect to arise when reading a book that takes place during the Civil Rights Movement. In a quick thumbing through the book, I’m reminded of following topics which either students were able to connect to in this story or that I was able to provide supplemental materials to deepen understanding: school inequity, the criminal justice system, confronting stereotypes about light skin and dark skin African Americans, debating the straightening of hair vs. natural African hairstyles, teachers as activists, diversity in the teaching force, “hidden figures” of the Civil Rights Movement beyond MLK Jr. and Rosa Parks, sex education, adoption, and–most importantly–the difficult individual choices that we all make in pushing our world towards or away from justice.

I’m honestly disappointed that I’m not sharing in that experience with a new group of kiddos this year. But maybe after reading this, I’ve convinced a few more people to give the Claudette Colvin story a read and hopefully get it into the hands of more young people.


To Test or Not to Test? That is the Question

5843577306_1a98149efb_o.jpgBy Bill Waychunas – “Because I said so.”  No words that a teacher (or parent) ever wants to utter. That’s how I felt as I pathetically begged my 9th graders to do their best on a recent PARCC test, which is the newer, more rigorous, common core version of standardized state assessments.

My stomach turns thinking about the questions they asked and the half-baked responses I gave as I tried to give them a quick pep talk before settling in for testing.

“Does this count for a grade?” – No, but…

“When will we get our scores back?” – Probably not until next school year…

“What happens if we just go to sleep during the test?” – Nothing really except that I’ll wake you up…

“So, why does this test even matter?” …because I said so?

Inspiring, right?

Generally speaking, I believe in testing and assessment as a way of verifying student understanding and for teacher and school-wide reflection on their effectiveness. After all, every teacher assesses students in some way; informal and formal assessments happen every day in class as students volunteer correct or incorrect answers, complete homework assignments, or do ANY assignment. Show me a teacher who doesn’t assess or test their students in some way, and I’ll show you an ineffective teacher who likely has no end goals for their course or who rambles aimlessly through content assuming that “if I said it, then they learned it.”

Tests are not inherently bad. But, they can certainly be used in a way that is hurtful to our education system. The PARCC and Smarter Balance tests will provide information and insights into teaching and learning that were previously unavailable. Never before have we been able to compare the schools in different states, districts, and cities in such a widespread and consistent manner. The potential to make more informed policy decisions to improve our education system based on such assessments is enormous. But, by not testing smart, we risk wasting everyone’s time in the process.

Here are some questions that schools, district, and state policy-makers should be asking so we can become smarter about standardized testing in our classrooms:

  1. Will this test be useful? If the test doesn’t tell the teacher, student, parent, or school anything that they can use to take action on behalf of a student, then it is probably a waste of time. Tests should show us what students know, as well as where they are struggling so that we can make plans to remediate misconceptions, target instruction towards skills that haven’t been mastered, and push students to new more difficult levels when they’re ready. We cannot keep giving tests just for the sake of giving tests; there should always be a good reason to give them.
  2. When will we get the results? If it takes months, or even weeks, to get the results back from an assessment, then it’s generally too late to do anything with them, making them generally useless to a classroom teacher or parent.
  3. Does this test really matter? I’m not arguing for high-stakes testing, but tests should count for something. There are other ways to make tests matter than giving them a grade or threatening a student with repeating a grade level if they don’t reach a certain cut-score. If no one at the school particularly cares about the results of the test, then we should really be asking ourselves why we are taking the test in the first place.
  4. How much time are we spending on testing? A high-quality and thorough test takes time, but that doesn’t mean that we should be testing all the time. Some schools and districts spend so much time on testing, that they seriously curtail the amount of time spent actually teaching. Lots of people like to blame this on federal or state testing requirements, but the reality is that, in most cases, we are doing this to ourselves through district or school-level decisions. I’m not sure that I have an exact percentage of time that should be spent on testing, but the “law of diminishing returns” is at play here. By only using tests that are actually valuable to instruction, we can avoid hitting the avoidable point of assessment and data overload.

This is by no means a comprehensive, fool-proof formula for solving all of the woes related to standardized testing, but by taking some time to make more thoughtful decisions about what, how often, and why we test, we can perhaps find a fair middle-ground between assessment and instruction. For my sake, I hope that we can find this middle ground soon so that I never again have to utter the words “because I said so” as the empty and hollow reason for taking a test.

Not Fooled by the Chicago Teachers Union

By Bill Waychunas – It’s not that I’m anti-Union, I’m just against unreasonable people that take advantage of political situations. Trying to fool people into thinking that you’re fighting on behalf of kids when it’s really your own interests at the forefront, frankly, makes me sick.

On April Fool’s Day, the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) held a one-day strike, or walk-out as they’re calling it, to protest “unfair labor practices” at Chicago Public Schools (CPS). What I find unfair about CTU’s protest is their lack of consideration for CPS’s current situation and their actions’ negative impact on the teaching profession’s public perception.

The Chicago Public School district is so short of money that they have taken out massive loans and laid-off thousands of teachers and staff already this year. They’ve even announced that teachers will have to take unpaid furlough days to help make ends meet. This isn’t a new thing either; CPS hasn’t been able to make a payment to the teachers’ pension program in years.

This is all amid a state budget holdout that’s been going on for almost a year and extraordinary pension related debt in Chicago which led to a doubling of property taxes last year and general financial problems in the city.

Don’t get me wrong, the importance of education should cause people to rise up and demand better from their legislators and local leaders. Kids deserve to go to well-funded schools. And if this is what CTU is actually protesting about, then I’m all for it. Unfortunately, this isn’t really their end-goal.

The CTU and their leader, Karen Lewis, have had some very public battles with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, stemming from the teacher’s strike over the summer of 2012, where teachers and the mayor duked it out over teacher evaluations, salary, insurance benefits, and extending the school day and year. Both sides came out of the strike claiming some victories, but the real result was the creation of a political rivalry which is getting in the way of the city and state from finding real solutions to the very real financial problems.

Fast forwarding to the mayor’s race of 2015, and the only thing which prevented Karen Lewis from running against Rahm Emanuel was a bout with brain cancer. Instead, the CTU did the next best thing and anointed a hand-picked candidate for mayor, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, and pumped in record amounts of cash into local elections for alderman and state representatives.

With the election of anti-Union Republican Governor Bruce Rauner in 2014, who is generally a moderate, the CTU have continuously criticized and demanded more from a state and city that are in financial ruin.

This brings us back to the walk-out or strike on April Fool’s Day. What were CTU members really striking about? Money? I’m not sure how their strike could make money appear out of nowhere from a state and city that are frighteningly broke, leaving the CTU looking like a bunch of childish whiners. Their continuous demands are even hurting the teaching professions image, by making CPS teachers seem unrealistic, greedy, and ignorant. Far from acting like the respectable and reasonable professionals which teachers constantly profess to become, they’re acting immaturely by making a thinly-veiled political move for their own personal benefits.

Knowing that there is actually no money currently available that is going to change the situation faced by the district, city, and state, the CTU concocted this event to further crystalize their political image as the anti-Rahm and anti-Rauner brand. This is a move to entrench their political strength with hopes to leverage it in future elections and their on-going contract negotiations with the city. This was not about children or education. It is about adults taking advantage of a political situation, at the expense of children, while offering no real solution or willingness to face financial realities like grown-ups or professionals.

The irony will be if the CTU does win this political battle, then is forced to see their own unreasonableness and deal with the financial woes in ways which they would have previously howled and complained about. With the current politics of the CTU, I hope that day never comes.

Maybe their plan will work and they fooled everybody with their April Fool’s Day strike, but Karen Lewis, you’re not fooling me.

Some Honest Truth from a Charter Teacher

5.2-Apples.jpgBy Bill Waychunas – Telling people that you teach in a charter school can elicit a wide range of reactions.

Usually, people simply ask me some innocent questions to try to figure out what charter schools actually are. This is completely normal because the vast majority of us grew up at a time when school choice meant the option between public and private schools; charter schools didn’t even exist. Because so few people have had experiences with these types of schools, it should be expected that they may have some reservations, or at least questions, about them. Sadly, this unknown world is too often demonized as the world renowned rapper Macklemore has said so plainly because “we fear what we don’t know.” After spending the past seven years teaching at three different charter schools in two different states, I’d like to think that I know a thing-or-two about the topic and would like to offer my honest thoughts on charter schools and the school choice movement.

Let’s first clear up the most common misunderstanding that people have about charter schools. Charter Schools ARE public schools. Students at charter schools do not pay tuition. They do not have to take a test to get in. Students in charters can live in any part of the city to attend, and charters are mostly funded using taxpayer money (alongside some private donations–to be discussed in a future blog).

I do not believe that charter schools are some sort of saving grace in public education because not all charter schools are good schools. Some struggle mightily and do a disservice to many of the students. Some are outstanding and are making huge strides towards closing the achievement gap. Many are just mediocre.

Of the three different charter schools which I’ve taught in, one has been middle of the road and in a suburban area, and the other two have been in high poverty urban areas, one which did no better (and possibly worse) than nearby schools and the other which significantly out-performs the neighboring schools. The spectrum of quality in charter schools is as wide and varied as neighborhood public schools. So, let’s please move past the “good vs. evil” narrative, which is too often injected into the school-choice discussion and collectively reflect on what can be learned from the differing models to provide better learning opportunities for students.

Another common sentiment among those who are anti-charter is the idea that school choice cherry-picks the best students and leaves the neighborhood public schools with the most disadvantaged students, with a disproportionate share of students with special needs, and the least involved parents. By skimming the cream from the top, charters are dooming neighborhood schools to chronic failure. In my personal experiences, I haven’t found these arguments to be particularly true.

In regards to special education populations, the school which I teach at now has had a comparable or higher rate of special education students compared to the nearest neighborhood high schools. In Chicago, charters average special education populations of 13% compared to the 14% average in neighborhood public schools. When teaching at a more suburban charter, I saw a different problem. In a disturbing trend of “school hopping,” parents of students with disabilities would leave one school for another once the school had referred their child for special education testing as a way to avoid a label being placed on their child, which ultimately had a negative impact as their student didn’t receive the services they needed.

There is some validity to the argument that charters have more involved parents. For a parent to become aware of the educational options for their child takes some effort on their part. But, simply enrolling your child in a school doesn’t mean that you are an involved or particularly good parent. The “better parents” argument is based on a large assumption that parents know what makes a good school. Sadly, especially in low-income homes, parents don’t necessarily have the expertise to make informed decisions about their child’s education, which takes away this supposed competitive advantage for charter schools. Market systems depend on informed consumers and the lack of clear, easily accessible information about schools for parents is a large flaw in the school-choice theory, both for those who are in favor and against charters.

For example, I’ve had plenty of parents who have expressed to me that their child is “the school’s problem,” have hung up on me over the phone, and one who has threatened to break my fingers for giving their child a detention. Too often, I’ve seen parents withdraw their child from a charter school because it is “too much work” or because the school’s “doing too much.” Students sometimes even enroll in charters because they’ve been kicked out other schools. The “cream” which charters skim hasn’t always matched the rhetoric that I’ve heard people use regarding school choice.

I’ve had lots of great parents too, but this brings me to a larger point about the purpose of charter schools. The original idea behind charter schools was to allow freedom for teachers to get creative and find innovative ways for schools to educate students that were falling through the cracks in the traditional system. It has also become a way to inject a bit of competition into the field of education as a way to spur innovation. The reality is that many students are leaving the traditional system in search of better educational opportunities at charters and, according to research by Stanford University, they are finding them, at least in the cities. In order to avoid getting into a “who’s better” argument, (the research on charter vs neighborhood schools is generally very inconclusive) I’d like to point to another study of the highest-performing charter networks in the country that can bring charter successes back to their origins – to be the laboratories for potential education reform.

In 2012, the Brookings Institute and Harvard produced a report which determined the common factors associated with high performance in New York charter schools. Their findings shouldn’t be that surprising and can seem to be common sense. Schools which had the highest levels of achievement and growth had the following characteristics:

1)      Teachers receiving frequent observations and quality feedback
2)      Data-Driven Instruction Practices
3)      Providing High Dosage Tutoring
4)      Increased Instruction Time (or time on task)
5)      Creating cultures of high expectations

I encourage you to take a further look at the report and explore their findings. There are excellent charter schools around the country doing amazing things for students using these practices. So, instead of getting caught up in the partisan battle of the school-choice debate, I hope that we can step back and take an honest look at the good that can come from the charter movement and leverage that knowledge to better serve all students–no matter what type of school they go to.

Social Studies Classes are SOOOOOOO Boring

history-998337_960_720.jpgBy Bill Waychunas – Here we go again. Without fail, each and every year, more than one parent will turn a parent-teacher conference into a confessional. Usually, it happens when a parent asks me to explain what my course (Civics) is all about. Sometimes, it comes after they tell me a story about how their child had really enjoyed one of the topics we had learned about and talked their parent’s ear off at home. On occasion, I’m completely blindsided by it, but usually it starts off something like this:

“I used to hate my history classes when I was in high school.”

Then comes my favorite part.

“It was just so boring.”

Great. This is going well. Then comes the curveball.

“But now I just love history stuff.”


Astounding. As a younger teacher, I thought the the adults who had this mindset or the students that weren’t particularly engaged by history just needed time to “come around” to history, as if it was an acquired taste.

Now, I believe that it has more to do with the way that the vast majority of social studies classes are taught. Just this week, I was riding in an Uber chatting with the driver and upon finding out that I was a social studies teacher, he said:”I always liked history classes. I’m good at memorizing things.” There lies the problem. Instead of teaching students to read, think, discuss, and write, we social studies teachers are focused on parading through as much content as possible. We can’t “cover” everything in our classes, yet when we try to, we are creating the “boring” class that’s just all about memorizing facts.

As more schools are shifting the emphasis of reading instruction into social studies classes, we have a great opportunity to teach less, teach it better, and teach social studies skills that will truly serve our students in their futures.

To renew my license this past year, I needed to take an additional course in reading instruction. So, I frantically enrolled in a course at a local public college and could only get into a Friday night course called Foundations of Reading Instruction. So, there I sat, the only secondary teacher in a class of future kindergarten and 1st grade teachers, learning about how to teach kids their alphabet and phonics. While I dreaded the class at first, I ended up learning more than just reading instruction.

To start each class, the professor would ask the class the seemingly simple question, “What is reading?” to which someone in the class would respond, “It is the interaction between the text, the reader, and their prior knowledge.” This is a powerful and important concept that has shaped my teaching of reading in my classroom but also has a related parallel to the work of social studies teachers.

If education and the study of social studies is about creating capable and engaged citizens and setting the foundation for a thriving democracy, then I would ask the question, “What is democracy?” Well, to borrow from my past professor, democracy is “the interaction between the real world, the citizen, and their social studies knowledge.” History and social studies are our “prior knowledge” which enables us to interact with and understand the world around us. Without background knowledge, students cannot use higher-level critical thinking skills that make history useful or relevant to their everyday lives. The problem that happens in most social studies classrooms is that we focus on cramming as much prior knowledge into our students brains as possible without ever showing them how to use it or why it matters.

I believe that this is exactly the reason why so many people are drawn to history as they become older; the success of the History Channel can’t be completely attributed to Duck Dynasty, after all. When asked to describe their high school history experience in one word, most people chose the words “boring” or “irrelevant.” How is it possible that history-centered entertainment continuously tops the charts of best sellers and blockbuster movies, like Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States or Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln? Clearly, there is an untapped wellspring of interest and value in history that has been unfortunately overlooked or simply underutilized by social studies teachers for generations.

Students today are growing up in a much different world than the vast majority of their teachers, which is why we must adjust the way that we teach social studies. In the past, factual recall and content knowledge was perhaps generally more useful due to the effort and time needed to look something up. For students today, anything that they could possibly want to know is available at their fingertips through smartphones and the internet. The old-fashioned way of memorizing dates, names, events, and other facts needs to be “history.” Instead, what we should be doing is teaching students how to take on the truly massive amounts of information available in the world today by comprehending it, evaluating it, discussing it, and coming to rational conclusions about it.

This is why I’m imploring my fellow social studies teachers to ditch their textbooks (maybe not completely) and venture into the dangerous, exciting, and relevant world of controversy in the curriculum. As adults, we must navigate the treacherous waters of uncertainty, face down conflicting information, and grapple with varying points of view. Why aren’t we asking our students to do the same? By bringing controversy into our curriculum we allow student to practice their skills of interpreting information, considering the views of others, and evaluating arguments and evidence to come to reasoned judgements about a wide range of issues ranging from raising the minimum wage to whether or not 16 year olds should be allowed to vote.

In a history class, why not present students with some of the many mysteries of history where there is conflicting opinion about what actually happened? These are real world issues that are both relevant and interesting to students. Best of all, they give students the opportunity to engage and practice the skills they will need to support and thrive in a democracy before they are released into the world of adulthood. Each year that I teach, I find myself teaching less and less content while more deeply diving into a select number of topics.

But what about the mandated curriculum? What if student opinions get out of control and go beyond disagreements into full-out arguing or bullying of other students? These are valid fears. Teaching “by the (text)book” is certainly the easier and safer route to take. A big part of this is practicality, as going chapter-by-chapter through a book is efficient in terms of the teacher’s expenditures of time and energy. There is little thinking or preparing that needs to be done by the teacher, or by the students. Stepping outside of a textbook can also expose a teacher to possible conflict with students, parents, or administration if they don’t agree with the teacher’s particular presentation of a controversial topic. Staying within the lines of appropriateness isn’t always easy for a teacher to do, but should always be a large consideration when moving away from a standard, textbook curriculum.

The alternative is to stick too closely with the read the textbook, take notes, memorize, and assess cycle that has plagued many social studies classrooms. If we choose not to bring our social studies curricula and teaching closer to what is valuable and interesting to students through controversy and emphasizing the skills truly needed for positive participation in society, we’re not only cheating our students but we will forever be the teachers of just another “boring” course.

A Shooting at Parent-Teacher Conferences

containing-144103_960_720By Bill Waychunas – It all started as a pretty typical report card pick up. Beginning at 4:00pm, there were parents who were eagerly waiting to find out how their students were doing in classes as their children stood nervously, hoping that the outcomes of that night wouldn’t result in them losing their phones or some similar punishment. They had no idea that this quarter’s Report Card Pick-Up night would be unlike any other.

I teach 9th grade civics at a charter high school on Chicago’s far south side. Despite all of the images and pre-conceived notions which that statement may conjure in one’s mind, especially considering the title of this post, we are proud to say that we are among the best schools in the city. Although more than 95% of our students are low-income and come to us several grade levels behind in their academic and social-emotional skills, we have had some of the top results in terms of growth within the city of Chicago. Part of our focus to improve student gains has been to emphasize parent involvement and communication, including setting the goal of 90% attendance for parent-teacher conferences.

So, here we were. I had already met with the grandmother and father of one of my advisory (homeroom) students. They were always the first ones at Report Card Pick Up and within 15 minutes, they were on their way to meet with other teachers. Next in my classroom was a student who had recently transferred into our school. She came into my classroom with her mother and younger brother. She had asked me a question as I had gone to my desk to retrieve something for our conference when it happened.








The noise came from outside the school; it sounded like from the park across the street. Shamefully, I will admit that my first reaction was to turn to the family in my room and ask, “Were those fireworks?” I quickly stepped out into the hallway and what happened next was simply a whirlwind. A shooting had happened right outside of our building as students and their families were streaming in and out to meet with teachers and get their student’s report cards. Now, we needed to quickly get everyone into lockdown.

The staff heroically sprang into action and began ushering students and families towards the middle of the building and into our library as quickly and calmly as possible. As I waved parents into the library and looked down the hallway towards the entrance at the far corner, I could see that there were dozens of students in their navy blue uniforms streaming into the building.

The screams. That’s what I remember next.

“He’s been shot!”

A crowd of boys rushed in from the outside, carrying another student between their shoulders. They collapsed on the floor and there was screaming and crying all around me. The front office staff and the disciplinarians surrounded him. My stomach sank as the teachers in the hallway rounded up the last few families from the hallway and took them into the library.

The range of reactions within that library was absolutely astounding. The staff mostly was in shock; walking around the room with a look of horror and tears on their faces. Parents were mostly calm, with looks of deep sadness which come from years of being in too many oh-so-similar situations. Some even complained or argued with staff about why they had to stay in this hot room.

As expected there was a lot of crying. At this point, we didn’t know details of what had happened or who was involved or what the condition of the victim was. Some students had been separated from their parents who were in different parts of the building or knew that their families were on their way to conferences. Fear overcame many as they worried about their family’s safety. I snapped out of my trance and started handing my cell phone to students to make phone calls home. After asking several other teachers to do the same, most students had made phone calls and at the very least notified their family of their own safety within a few minutes.

The reactions of other students caught me off-guard. I understand that people cope with trauma in different ways, but I was shocked by the number of students that continued to hang out or joke with friends, one group even going so far as to have a mini-dance competition in the midst of so much sadness and fear. That’s when I realized something that makes my heart ache to this day: for too many of our kids, this was just another Thursday night. Violence and tragedy are so common in their lives that it had become normalized, which is, in part, why so many acted as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

Eventually, we found out that the person shot was a 9th grader at our school. Police were in the building and we could hear the sirens and helicopters outside. We had to keep all of the students and families in the library until we were given the all clear by the police.

At one point, I stood at the doorway, holding it open to get some cool air to circulate into the room. As I held the door open slightly, I looked down that same long hallway towards the far corner and school entrance. This was the same hallway I looked down each and every day from my classroom at the other corner when I first arrived, between classes, during hallway duty, and at the end of the day. If any hallway in the school was “mine,” it was this one.

The school logo and mission were painted sharply in white paint on the blue wall next to the entrance. Today, my view was different. Yellow police tape was stretched and wrapped across the hallway and door; inside this box of police tape was a small pool of blood on the ground and two police officers talking seriously into walkie-talkies and staring at notepads.

After teaching in urban schools for a number of years, I’ve heard plenty about the horrible obstacles and heartbreaking tragedies which too many of our students face in their everyday lives, but this was different. Up until then, student’s lives had been compartmentalized in my reality: “home lives” vs “school lives.” Sure, bad things happened outside of school, but within the walls of the school building and classroom, we had control and created a bubble where those terrible things didn’t happen, or hardly mattered. Now something terrible from the world I had tried so hard to keep away had invaded my world at school and burst that bubble. I’m teaching at this school to make sure that students had opportunities to avoid or change their worlds and prevent violence like this from happening.

And here it was. In my hallway.

Thankfully, the shooting was not fatal and the student has been going through the recovery process. The police also arrested and charged the alleged shooter. For all of the bad things that have been said about Chicago police lately, I have to say that the officers at school that night were fantastic, even escorting staff, students, and families to their cars once the lockdown ended.

Instead of shaking your head after reading this article and saying, “what a shame,” I instead ask you to use it to truly think about the role of schools in the lives of our nation’s poor and disadvantaged.

For me, this tragedy reaffirmed my reasons for teaching at a school in the city. Sadly, for many children living in poverty, school is the safest place for them to be. Urban schools need to be places where students feel safe and have real opportunities to think and learn. Without schools that can provide our students from the most challenging of backgrounds with excellent support and opportunities to learn, they will be doomed to repeat and struggle in worlds of poverty and violence which have plagued many urban communities for generations.

This is why I hope that you don’t dismiss this as another story about a shooting on the south side of Chicago. Poverty and violence are not inevitable. Something can be done and schools are a part of that complex solution. Real students and their families are relying on amazing teachers, staff, and administrators to give them the education needed to do something about it.

So, next time you run into a person who teaches at a “bad” urban school, don’t ask them about if they feel safe at school, how disrespectful the students are, or why they would want to teach in that school. Simply thank them. They are impacting the lives of others in ways that most could never imagine.

P.S. – For more details on the shooting, click here.

Wait, Am I a Social Studies Teacher or Reading Teacher?: Part One

32936701By Bill Waychunas – Sorry to burst your bubble, but the truth is that you are both. Say what you will about the added emphasis on reading in the Common Core or standardized testing and the narrowing of curriculum, but the fact of the matter is that more and more social studies teachers are finding themselves in positions where they are being asked to tread into the mostly unfamiliar territory of reading instruction. Personally, I have no problem with this transition, as I find it hard to believe that any student could be a successful history student without also being a successful reader.

Several years ago, I began teaching at a school that asked me to be more thoughtful and accountable for reading results than I ever had been before. I wasn’t completely unprepared for this mission, as it mirrored some of my personal views of teaching social studies, but I would be lying if I told you that I was ready to successfully “marry” social studies content with reading instruction. This is especially challenging when students come in with a wide range of reading abilities, as many students do when working in a low-income area.

After much struggle, frustration and eventually triumph, I’m happy to share with you my bits of advice for differentiating reading instruction in a social studies classroom.

  1. Independent Reading isn’t just for Elementary students!

You can force kids to read as much as you want in class, but since reading is all about practice, students won’t become good readers until they want to read. Creating this thirst for reading isn’t always easy to do but will serve students in the long run if they become life-long readers. This is why in my class the first 10 minutes is dedicated to independent reading where students get to choose a book, magazine, or newspaper on their own to get them hooked on reading. (Side note: This is also a great time to check students’ homework and take attendance!)

  1. Reading aloud to students also isn’t just for Elementary School either

Skip the carpet squares and gathering around the teacher…It turns out that high school students don’t like sitting on the floor. When I first started teaching, I thought that reading aloud to students was somehow “above me” as a secondary teacher. Truth be told, reading aloud to students is an excellent way for them to be exposed to new vocabulary words which they have never heard before (look into the 30 million word gap) and also can help with fluency, especially if you have student read it back to you or their partner. This is why I will oftentimes record myself or a guest celebrity teacher from my school’s staff, to read a passage that I play for students. In this way they can hear and see text while they annotate, and I can monitor and assess their understanding through informal observations. This brings me to my next revelation…

  1. Don’t assume that students know how to interact with texts!

As adult readers, we interact with the text naturally through practice. In our heads, we use two voices when we read: one voice recites the text, the other has a conversation with the text. That second voice may ask questions, make connections, self-monitor for comprehension, react with emotions, or alert us when we come across an unfamiliar word.

Students need explicit instruction and modeling of these strategies in order to “activate” that voice in their head that interacts with the text. Close readings are great for this, but in order to get kids to naturally do this as they read, the literature teacher at my school and I developed a sticky-note system where kids stop as they interact with a text and record it in a format that we taught them at the beginning of the year. Currently, we have our students interact with the text by asking questions, making connections, visualizing, describing their mood, determining meaning of difficult Vocabulary, identifying Important Information, and paraphrasing difficult portions of text with a strategy we call the “Help Button.”

  1. Give students lots of practice with texts “at their level!”

While textbooks form the backbone of most social studies classrooms, we need to be wary of their reading levels as they tend to be especially difficult to students due to their highly challenging, content-specific vocabulary. Putting a high-school level textbook in front of a high schooler who struggles with reading and has probably had a bad relationship with social studies classes in the past is a recipe for disaster. Not being able to read the content leads to frustration, which can lead to a number of usually negative reactions that will drive a teacher bananas.

Some teachers will criticize this as “dumbing down” the curriculum, but I would argue against that notion in two ways. One, your job as a teacher is to teach the students in front of you, not the lofty idea of where you think they should be. Two, does it really matter how your student learns your content? For example, if I give two students different passages about the causes of the Civil War, one at a 4th grade reading level and the other at a 9th grade level, is it more important that they understand the causes of the Civil War or that both of them get the same assignment? I think you know where I would stand on that issue.

Anyways, to ensure that you are reaching kids on their level, assess your students reading levels early in the year and adjust the materials that you give them based on their performance. Some good assessments to use include the Scholastic SRI which will give you Lexile scores, the STAR reading tests available through Renaissance Learning, or, if school budgets are a problem, some practice ACT reading exams. I like to group my students based on several of these data points and assign readings that are around each group’s reading level. I’ve found this to be especially helpful when assigning homework, as students need to be able to access materials on their own which then allows me to up the rigor (and support) for readings we do in class.

I’ve named my reading groups Red, White, and Blue, of course. While they all might be reading about symbolic free speech through case summaries of Tinker v. Des Moines, they all are getting readings at different degrees of difficulty. Achieving this requires either a plethora of widely ranging materials or the ability to modify to meet student reading needs.

Modifying for reading level is easier said than done, but there are some simple short cuts that you can take advantage of. The first step is to get yourself some different textbooks at different levels. U.S. history textbooks are available on Amazon for elementary school classrooms or middle school classrooms. If I’m teaching a certain topic, I may assign the chapter from the elementary textbook to my lowest readers, the high school book to my proficient or advanced students, and the middle school text to my students that are only slightly behind. The result: students that are getting reading practice at their level, content knowledge that can be used for more fun social studies activities such as projects, and a teacher that doesn’t have to deal with students that are frustrated by the text.

For current events, I use an amazing website ( which takes newspaper articles and modifies them for you at different Lexile levels. The readings are even searchable and many come with pre-made quizzes. Best of all, the site is FREE!

For texts that you find online or have in a word document, modifying text yourself is easy to do. To check reading levels of texts which I can copy/paste, I like to use the website There are plenty of other free websites out there and a quick google search for “free text analyzer” should point you in the right direction. When modifying text down to student reading levels, keep a few key points in mind. Shorten the sentences. Simplify the vocabulary words. Add text features like pictures, headings, subheadings, and vocabulary definitions in captions.  When you’ve finished, paste the modified text into the text analyzer and see if you’ve gotten to the level where your students will be able to access and understand.


Congrats! You’ve just passed Part One of how to be both a social studies and reading teacher. I hope you will join me next month as I discuss further topics such as vocabulary instruction, in-class reading methods, creating book nerds, blending content and reading in assessments, and finding ways to engage students with text.

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