Back to Basics Education

In education, you hear a lot about the need for schools to go back to basics. This argument generally states that the standards taught to children and the specific curricula used to get there are too broad, forcing teachers to provide a shallow overview of vast amounts of material instead of giving students a deeper look at a more limited array of topics. In my own opinion, there is some truth to this argument, and two “back to basics” areas in particular get short shrift: proper spelling and basic math fact practice.

In response, I’ve worked over the past five years to create two websites that can fill this void.

With regard to spelling, I recommend that newly-released Rocket Spelling. This website “gamifies” spelling for students while providing teachers with real-time information about their students’ spelling progress. It includes 1,200 of the most critical, high-frequency words in the English language, and it scaffolds student learning with review levels to ensure mastery. Rocket Spelling allows teachers to easily differentiate for students of various abilities. Classroom subscriptions to Rocket Spelling are available for free for the entire 2017-2018 school year (!!) if you use coupon code ‘rocketlaunch’ and sign up before the end of September.

Rocket Spelling map

For the math facts, I recommend This website gamifies the basic math facts and replaces the traditional paper/pencil timed test. Just like with Rocket Spelling, helps with differentiation, as it provides 25 different timed tests of varying difficulties and time limits to meet the needs of all students. It includes addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division up through the twelves, and it even concludes with some mixed operation levels as a final, challenging review. It provides real-time feedback for teachers just as Rocket Spelling does.

The Math Facts

Rocket Spelling and are both designed to help elementary teachers teach the all-important basics in a fun, effective, and efficient way — engaging for students, and providing immediate data for teachers to be able to differentiate and plan targeted instruction. Try them out today!


Rocket Spelling launches today!

As a third-grade teacher, I’ve always wished that there was a better spelling website out there. Many spelling websites require you to enter your weekly list and then plug those words into some basic games that look like they are straight from the 1990s. So over the past year, thanks to my son’s amazing coding skills, we created the site that I’ve always thought should exist.

Announcing the launch of!

Rocket Spelling makes learning to spell fun. It can work in conjunction with a teacher’s minilessons, but it also can allow students to move forward at an individualized pace. It is gamified enough to interest your elementary students, but it also still has your students spending the vast majority of their time on actual spelling (not tangentially-related game playing).

Rocket Spelling Awards pic

Rocket Spelling shows your students’ spelling progress to you in real time and gives you the data you need to be a better spelling teacher for each of your students.

Rocket Spelling results

Best of all, Rocket Spelling is currently free! If you sign up by September 30th, you can get a free classroom Rocket Spelling account using coupon code rocketlaunch. Your classroom account will be valid for the entire 2017-2018 school year. Give it a try, and please share that coupon code with your colleagues, too! We’re on a mission to make spelling exciting and fun for your students.

Rocket Spelling map


Back-to-School Shopping: Oriental Trading Company

When it comes to back-to-school shopping for my third grade classroom, I’m always on the lookout for a great deal. For a few lucky items, I can sometimes find huge sales at local stores. But each year, I find myself needing basic supplies like construction paper, locker tags, name plates, and bulletin board borders… and those items never tend to be the ones included in any back-to-school sales.

Until this year, I always assumed Amazon was the best place to shop online for great deals on items like the ones listed above. I was wrong. It turns out that Oriental Trading (and specifically their education subsidiary, Learn365) has deals that are far better than you can get anywhere else on those items and many more. Check this out: packs of 9″ x 12″ construction paper (50 sheets) are just $1.49 per pack!

Go try to find a better deal than that on Amazon. I’ll wait. But trust me… I’ve already tried.

And if, by chance, you somehow find a better deal somewhere else, Learn365 will beat it with their 110% Lowest Price Guarantee.

A fun collection of Learn365 supplies: construction paper, border, name plates, and locker tags!

Learn365 has incredible selection, too. Bulletin board borders, for example, come in 105 varieties instead of the handful or two that I can typically find in my local brick-and-mortar teacher’s store.

I’ll be honest: I always thought that Oriental Trading Company had great stuff, but I also thought that you’d pay more when shopping there. It turns out that they give you the best of both worlds: great products and great value. Highly recommended!


Please note: Oriental Trading Company provided these materials free of charge in exchange for an honest review of their products. My endorsement is honest and is based on my wonderful experience with them!

School Improvement for All

Each summer, I take some time to read a number of brand-new professional development books pertaining to various aspects of education. As summer winds down, I’d like to share my favorite professional book from this summer — School Improvement for All: A How-To Guide for Doing the Right Work by Sharon Kramer and Sarah Schuhl.

School Improvement for All builds the case that a school is most likely to maximize student success when the school functions as a professional learning community (PLC). Each chapter of the book provides direction in how to achieve that, and the book also includes specific rubrics, action plans, and reproducible protocols to help get things started.

SI for all cover

After reading the book, I had the opportunity to interview the authors about their model of schools-as-PLCs. I thought our back-and-forth was worth sharing (the italicized questions are mine, and the plain-text responses are from the authors):

Your book focuses on schools operating as PLCs to get results. A few specifics on this: Do you see schools operating as one large PLC? Or do you also recommend that your framework be used on a smaller scale among grade level teams, departments/subject area teachers, and the like? Is there a certain number of people you think is optimal for a PLC? Can an entire district or a subset across a district (e.g. a math committee) also utilize your PLC framework? What might be the differences in these various applications of the PLC model?

It is the school that operates as a Professional Learning Community (PLC) and within that structure are collaborative teams (most often grade level or course alike teams).  The collaborative teams address the four critical questions related to student learning:

(1) What do we expect students to learn?

(2) How will we know if they learned it?

(3) What will be our response if they do not learn it?

(4) What will be our response when they do learn? (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, and Many 2010)

A collaborative team consists of at least two teachers focused on addressing the answers to the questions above.  It might be necessary to ask teachers whom it makes sense for them to work with when answering the four critical questions related to student learning if there are singleton teachers on staff.  These collaborative teams are the engine that drive the PLC.

Schools also have a learning team (or leadership team) designed to analyze structures and practices to strengthen student academic learning and behavior.  Together, with the principal, they too address the four critical questions and the three big ideas: (1) A focus on student learning, (2) collaboration, and (3) a focus on results.

District committees can certainly comprise collaborative teams that also address the four critical questions and three big ideas, now using the district as a Professional Learning Community itself.

Within the book are resources, examples, protocols, and tools to help principals and learning teams navigate the right work, plan for any shifts in culture that need to occur on site, recognize the needs of 21st century learners, create a common guaranteed and viable curriculum to include priority standards, pacing, and learning targets, create common assessments, design quality instruction, and write SMART goals and analyze data from common assessments to improve student learning.  Grade level or course alike teams as well as district teams can utilize this framework as they clarify and respond to student learning.

How does a PLC approach to school improvement stand in contrast to other common approaches? 

Too often schools purchase programs or resources (e.g., hardware or software learning tools, curriculum materials, manipulatives) as a way to “fix” gaps in student learning without first looking at the root causes of the gaps and working as collaborative teams to strengthen planning and responding to student learning. This school improvement framework looks at the entire system and limits inequities in student learning by having teachers learn from one another and collectively work to address the learning needs of each and every student served by the team.  It is not one teacher’s responsibility to address the needs of students by himself or herself, but rather a collaborative effort.  Together, teachers work to ensure high levels of learning for all students.  Both teachers and students learn in the process.

Do you see your chapters as basically laying out a recommended sequence for schools beginning their PLC journey, or do you think the journey will be individualized based on each school’s history, strengths and weaknesses, and what is found in their needs assessment?

The journey is definitely personalized.  The chapters do tend to be in the order schools need to address their practices when working to improve student learning, however, they do not need to be done linearly.  In fact, the learning team (or leadership team) will most likely address the tasks in chapters 1 – 3 to strengthen overall practices, master schedules, clarify mission, vision, values and goals, and establish the work of collaborative teams and shifts in culture WHILE collaborative teams begin addressing the four critical questions as shown in chapters 4 – 7.

The needs assessment provides insight into where each school needs to start on their path to school improvement because it helps a staff recognize their strengths and areas of practice to improve.  Each chapter begins with a vision versus reality section in which the vision for the work when done well is shared and questions related to a school’s reality are introduced.  Next, the “Start Now” section gives ideas for where the learning team or collaborative teams need to start and can be modified based on work already in process at a school.  Finally, each chapter ends with a rubric to show teams what the work looks like if they are beginning (level 1), attempting (level 2), practicing (level 3) or embracing (level 4) the work.  As schools do this work, the rubric is a learning tool for how to continuously improve to reach the learning needs of each and every student.

Finally, what would you say to educators who fear that too much emphasis is placed on seeing students as data points rather than people?  How can we use the PLC approach — even with its SMART goals that are data-based and an emphasis on accountability — in a way that doesn’t get reduced just to looking at standardized test scores and improving those scores as the key goal?

Students are definitely more than a number.  Though we need data to determine if instructional practices are effective and to identify those students being served well and those not being served well, we also need to look at trends in student work to identify the common strengths and misconceptions in learning.  Which students have gaps in learning and why? What needs to be targeted to ensure each and every student learns? How will each collaborative team work to re-engage students in learning?  This more meaningful data is centered on team-created student learning targets (from standards) and common assessments, not standardized tests.

Looking at data for the sake of looking at data will not change practice or improve student learning.  Teams must put names to targets students have learned and not learned yet.  They must differentiate, intervene, remediate, and extend learning as evidenced by common assessments with common scoring agreements for proficiency. These are team created actions in response to the data and they happen in real time.

Some change happens at a school when collaborative teams address critical questions #1 – 2 and real change happens with teams embrace answering questions #3 – 4 as a regular part of professional practice.  When teams set a SMART goal initially to a big idea topic or a state assessment, they can then look at whether or not they have that same percentage of student proficiency with every target on a common assessment after each common assessment.  This creates urgency for responding to student learning. More important than the SMART goal itself is the action plan that accompanies it.  What does the collaborative team promise to do to minimize gaps in student learning and ensure high levels of learning for all students?  How will their actions impact the learning of students?  It is a larger job than any one teacher – it requires a school that operates as a professional learning community with collaborative teams focused on the right work.

Any final thoughts about School Improvement for All that you’d like to pass along?

If collaborative teams intentionally focus on learning on a unit-by-unit basis by determining the priority standards, unpacking them into smaller learning targets, developing common formative and summative assessments, finally intervening when students do not learn, and extending learning for students who have learned, then the state assessments will take care of themselves.  The alignment of curriculum, instruction, and assessment is the key to improved results not just a focus on standardized test data.

Finally, this is a how-to book.  There are so many resources available that describe the desired state or what it should look like.  School Improvement for ALL is truly the how-to-get-there book.  It is written for practitioners by practitioners.

Regarding those final two sentences, I couldn’t agree more. If you are interested in helping your school move toward a Professional Learning Community model, or if you feel like your building is stuck and in need of a better climate and culture, I highly recommend reading School Improvement for All!


6 Powerful Study Techniques

Interested in helping your students learn to recall information more effectively and consistently? This excellent article from The Tutoring Company lists six powerful strategies for helping students of all ages do exactly that.

I think my personal favorite is option #6 — gamifying your studying. I would add that sites like Quizizz, Quizlet Live, and Kahoot are all excellent for doing exactly that.

For the rest of the techniques, check out the full article at!



If you’re like me, you’re always looking for ways to get your elementary students to become better spellers. Weekly tests don’t work — the learning doesn’t “stick”, and for many of the students, the words are too easy or hard anyway. This has bothered me for years.

I’ve tried bringing in parent volunteers to test students individually and create personalized lists for each child. I’ve tried abandoning spelling tests altogether, focusing on mini-lessons and then checking students’ writing for proper spelling of the patterns I had taught. I’ve examined all of the spelling websites and apps out there, and I’ve tried most of them, to minimal effect.

What I want is an elementary spelling website that I can use to support my minilessons on word patterns, but which students can also use to move forward at their own pace. I want the site to include high-frequency words in addition to pattern-based words. I want the site to be gamified enough to hook in my students while also still spending the vast majority of the students’ time on actual spelling. I want the site to show me my students’ results at a glance in real time.

That site doesn’t exist. So I decided to make it.

And with that, it’s time for me to unveil my next big project: Rocket Spelling is going to be a differentiated spelling website designed for students in 1st-5th grades. It will include 1,200 high-frequency and pattern-based words, gamified learning with instant feedback for students, and live results at a glance for teachers. It will be the spelling site I’ve wanted to use for the past 5+ years.

Rocket Spelling will go live in the spring of 2017. If you’d like the chance to have your students beta-test the site for free yet this spring, please sign up now at We’re going to accept a limited number of classrooms for this special free offer. (Normally, the site will charge an annual subscription fee, but early signups will get full access to the site for free throughout the spring and summer of 2017.)

If you, like me, are frustrated with what’s been out there in the area of spelling, sign up now! Something better is on the way.


Customized Math Games for Your Classroom

Sometimes I’ll be getting ready to teach a math lesson, when suddenly I’ll think, “I wish I could find a good game that teaches this content in a more exciting way than just plain practice problems can.”  Sometimes I manage to find the perfect game to use, but often I can’t find a game that does exactly what I’m looking for.

That’s where comes in.  This amazing website will make the perfect math game for you, designed exactly to your specifications.  I couldn’t find a fun online game to measure fractions on a number line, so I had this game created for me.  Want a math game that uses your school’s colors or has other fun personalized elements to it like that?  Custom Math Games will do that for you as well.  Once the game is created, Custom Math Games will also host your game and allow you to have an unlimited number of students play the game as well.

The next time you can’t find the perfect math game, I seriously urge you to have  Custom Math Games create that game for you!