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What I’ll Do on Summer Break

June 19, 2012 posted by hdenney

Maybe this is a busy time of year for you, maybe not – but you know the summer break is finally here, and it’s a good time to plan for your continued growth as a teacher. So, if you need something new to reinvigorate your practice, think about travel, adventure, and professional development. The three definitely go together.

Summer is an ideal time to relax and refresh. A lot of people think teachers don’t do anything for several months in the summer, but you and I know better. Many of us are taking graduate courses, or participating in our district professional development activities. In the multi-state area around Maryland, there are a lot of opportunities for teachers to grow and learn. Here are two:

  • The Smithsonian Institute offers numerous professional development opportunities throughout the year and in the summer. Each museum hosts programs (many free), and you should plan now to attend the Teacher’s Night (usually in October). This event invites teachers to visit one museum (rotates each year) after-hours and collect resources from all the Smithsonian Museums, while enjoying special presentations. Start at

  • Mount Vernon offers incredible workshops for teachers from Virginia, DC, and Maryland. Send an email to and ask to join their mailing list for teachers. They have a two-day program open to Maryland teachers in July. The workshops have covered George Washington’s history and much more – the arts, agriculture, African-Americans (enslaved and free), the Civil War. The Winter Educator’s Evening is a lovely event ending in a candlelight tour of Mount Vernon. Both events fill up quickly, so if you get an email invitation, respond right away.

This brings to mind the many smaller, local museums and historical institutions in Maryland. Many of them provide special teacher workshops. Contact the tourism office and collect information. Check out local historical homes, visit artist’s studios and galleries, attend local musical events (many parks offer free concerts). Go to Annapolis, Sandy Spring, Frederick, Cumberland, Solomons Island, Shady Side, Baltimore. Look for specialized museums: The B&O Railroad Museum, the College Park Aviation Museum, the Captain Salem Avery House Museum, Sidling Hill Museum, Monacy National Battlefield, National Cryptologic Museum. Find more Maryland Museums here.

Expand your knowledge and experience by travelling to places in Washington, DC, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania. This year I am determined to go to Gettysburg, as I have never paid my respects there. Wherever you go, collect brochures, maps, and other resources. Keep them in a file. You can use them with a document camera for future lessons. Remember to ask for a teacher’s discount. A lot of places offer one, so stick your ID in your wallet this summer. Take your own children, or your partner. Pack a picnic. As a teacher you know that nothing is as fun as learning something new!

Remember to take along a camera. After I took a trip to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, I developed a PowerPoint presentation for teachers to use with the novel “Al Capone Does My Shirts”. Want to see it? Send an email to I’m working on one now for Harper’s Ferry, a trip taken last summer. I’ll share that too, if you ask.
When you identify a professional learning opportunity, invite others from your school or network of colleagues to go with you. Use your social network to share your adventures. Write about it in your reflection journal. Print pictures for your “About Me” bulletin board at school.

Everything you learn will expand your understanding. Everything you learn will help you expand the understanding of your students.

Do you know of something exciting happening this summer for teachers? Have a place you’d recommend for a visit? Please post a comment and share with all of us. I still have a few days open …

Manipulatives, Movement, and Memory

April 30, 2012 posted by hdenney


I have a parent with Alzheimer’s, and I have students with learning disabilities. Both have a hard time retaining information. In last year’s struggle to achieve Annual Yearly Progress, I examined various aspects of our students’ learning. Teachers repeatedly expressed frustration that they taught material, but when the content was revisited, it was as if students had never learned it. I heard it over and over – “Why can’t they remember it?” Recent increases in brain research may help us to answer the “why” eventually. But we have an immediate need to support our students by building retention skills. I am rephrasing the question to, “What can I do to help my students remember more?”

Are there lessons to be learned from the dementia patients that can help our youth with special needs? Or is it the other way around? Good teaching of the young may correspond to reinforcement of existing memory in the elderly.

This year I collected “Tips for Building Student Retention”, with input from Pamela Bukowski, a Speech and Language Pathologist. Two effective tools we recommend are manipulatives (visuals, tools, hands-on activities), and movement (arts integration, physical education, muscle memory training). Both of these tools can contribute to growth and maintenance of memory skills.

An Elementary school teacher uses manipulatives constantly, but as a child moves into secondary school the method focuses more on reading and writing, and less on touching and doing. Students with disabilities need those manipulative items. Here are some of the “tricks” I have observed teachers using with students:

  • When learning geography, students cut out and moved the map shapes into continents. In another class, they drew a compass rose and manipulated it to show the direction of tribal movement.

  • In Language Arts class, students chose textured fabric samples to illustrate moods in poetry. It was great to see students using sensory experiences (touch) in connection to literature. In another class, they used clay to hand-form sculptural symbols of the characters from a novel.

  • In math class, a teacher worked with a small group to make their own fraction piece cards (cutting index cards into halves, thirds, fourths). In our school students often input answers into an electronic responder (pushing buttons to enter an answer into a class graph is also a manipulative activity).

Another simple manipulative is a list. Many early dementia patients are helped by referring to lists of what they have to do. If there’s no list, they do things out of order, or not at all. A student who can’t remember what to do will most often do nothing -- because they can’t remember what is first. Give the kids lists. List everything needed (start with “write your name”) and scaffold it to fewer items as student learns procedures by rote. Write lists for individual students, write lists for the class, use proofreading and problem-solving checklists, or provide a rubric. Let students use bright markers, stickers, or ink stamps to mark off items done. Train the brain in procedures so it can pay attention to the significant content.

The human body makes a great manipulative, through movement. Coaches know that an athlete improves performance by repeating a motion until the muscles remember. Teachers can adopt the same technique. We can use our bodies to demonstrate learning, and to support retention of learning. My father remembers how to do things because his body has moved the same way for many years. One concrete example would be brushing his teeth. He may be able to show why it’s important to have clean teeth by demonstrating brushing technique. He remembers how to do it.

Students, too, can use movement to retain information. For example:

  • When learning music, students can raise and lower their hands to signify the change in note or pitch.

  • In Language Arts, students can illustrate a plot line by moving an arm to show rising and falling action.

  • In math class, students can learn geometric terms by using their hands (or feet) to make shapes (make your feet parallel, perpendicular, a 90’ angle).

  • In reading, students can develop reading fluency by reading while walking down a hallway. It takes practice, but their brains can learn to read steadily in rhythm with their feet. The pace of both will increase over time.

When I taught in a high school, I was amazed by a student with severe learning disabilities who could play a saxophone in a marching band – and never missed a musical or dancing step. I should have integrated movement activities with him in the classroom as a learning tool.

A final tip for retention is to use the body to give applause, a high five, a check sign in the air. We feel good when successful. Our brains respond to positive reinforcement. Try this simple movement: have students stretch and point to the stars when the entire class has been on-target. Or if the class is off-target, pause and have them do it as a reminder of a goal for success (“Reach for the Stars!”) The movement will cause everyone to take a deep breath and re-focus.

Manipulatives and Movement can help build Memory in learning. I’ve got more ideas, and learn more all the time from the research of the medical and educational professions. If you’d like to see a copy of our “Tips”, send an email request to

Push Yourself Like You Push Your Students

February 9, 2012 posted by hdenney

You’ve heard it said before – we don’t let our students stop learning and growing, so why do we let ourselves get into a rut?It’s late winter and the students might be feeling dull and you might be feeling dull too. If the MSAs are approaching, you are pushing hard and reinforcing skills and encouraging students. If it’s right after MSA time, you might be feeling drained. (Note to all Maryland teachers: I hope you are also energized because you watched your students work really hard during testing to demonstrate their progress. Take a moment now to celebrate their progress.)

Spring is the natural New Year – so pause for a look at you. Are you monitoring your own learning as honestly as you monitor your students’ growth? A spring resolution for teachers – Learn something new. Here’s my guide to spring rejuvenation: 

  1. Be a part of a practicing professional learning community. In my school, teachers meet regularly in their grade-level teams. You may have a mandated team too. You can also create your own learning community – identify other teachers who share your interests in current brain research, kinesthetic learning, or other topics. Meet for a morning coffee once a month and share information, share articles, or organize an informal book study. Talk. Communicate through email or social networking. Arrange a social outing for after school hours.

  2. Join online communities. Subscribe to email newsletters. Every organization and website has ways to link with other teachers. Don’t be afraid to join and subscribe. Your mailbox may fill up but so will your bank of resources.

  3. Think about how your expertise may be valuable to others. Have you developed an expertise in SMART Technology? Are you a Kurzweil leader? Can you write raps that get the students engaged? Do you use the arts to enhance learning? Teach others in your building about what you do best. Ask your principal if you can be a part of regularly scheduled professional development, or ask if you could be paid for an extra hour’s work after school to share your expertise.

  4. Find a mentor. Is there one teacher you admire - someone you go to regularly for advice or resources? Tell them that you call them a mentor. Give them a note of appreciation. Tell your principal how much they have helped you.

  5. Become a mentor. You could seek a position as a “Right Start Mentor” as we have in Anne Arundel County. If you’ve completed a program like National Board Certification, the Resident Teacher Certification program, or other cohorts, volunteer to mentor others going through the program. You can informally mentor someone – a new teacher or an experienced teacher who is new to a subject or grade. Drop by their room, ask if they need help, and share resources and ideas.

  6. Visit other classrooms and invite other teachers into your room. The practice of open door education is growing. I learn most about instructional practice by seeing what other teachers are doing in real time. I learn most about myself when someone shares what they observed when I am teaching.

  7. Join a professional association. The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), the International Reading Association (IRA) are places to start. You may also want to join a content-specific Professional Association – the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE) or the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). Read and share their journals. Monitor conference dates and when the meeting is in the Washington, DC – Baltimore area, you can save a lot of money on travel costs.

  8. Keep a journal, and reflect. It’s hard to find that fifteen minute period of time to jot notes or write a paragraph reflecting on your day. But writing is a physical act that helps the brain sort through ideas and organizes them for long-term memory. Sometimes when you write you can discover a new idea waiting on the edges of your thinking patterns. Periodically look back through your journal. If you have a period of time when your students are writing independently, write in your journal. You can be a model for your students.

  9. Share ideas with others often and freely. Be open to taking risks, be open to criticism, and be open to support from others. Be open to yourself.

The Hero Teacher

December 7, 2011 posted by hdenney

If we just let go of the idea of a “Superman” swooping in to save the educational system, we may realize that we already have “Super Hero” teachers. These are the teachers who are on the ground, in the trenches, getting dirty, fighting bad guys and serving as role models to the children of Maryland.

Our Hero teachers work long days at the steady pace of a marathon runner. Sometimes they sprint, but mostly they keep their eye on the far-off finish line and just keep moving. Hero teachers earn their blisters and wear out shoes. They often train in teams, but know that each race comes down to each runner. Even when exhausted and somewhat hopeless, they keep going.

Hero teachers are laboratory scientists, always willing to try something new. They are excited about new technology, and value research because sometimes it provides proof that something works. They experiment when appropriate and observe results. Hero teachers look for the pattern of success, and work to duplicate that pattern.

Hero teachers are artists who explore the world in highly creative ways. They see things a little differently, and believe personal expression is critically important. They know that ideas can be expressed in many different ways, and they know that emotions help the observer/learner connect. They provide experiences.

Hero teachers are scholars themselves. They read books, attend conferences, search the internet, and write. They observe others, and ask questions. They seek information, and know that sharing information with colleagues is valuable. They are most excited when they learn something new from their students, and that often happens because they are open to it.

I believe Hero teachers are professionally fulfilled. They know what they do is meaningful, and they have embraced their calling with passion. They are happy; even when they are struggling with frustration and burdens and kryptonite. Hero teachers know there is always someone or something trying to get in the way of the happy ending, but they believe it is coming nevertheless.

Hero teachers are everywhere, although they are not always recognized as such. I know two, and I want to recognize them.

I know Jennifer Sturgell, a math teacher who is as committed to preparing students with disabilities for algebra in high school as she is her advanced geometry students higher mathematics in college. I have seen her reach a student that other teachers were giving up on, and build his learning capacity. Mrs. Sturgell has embraced technology, and quietly helps any other teacher who wants to learn about electronic responders and interactive whiteboards. Mrs. Sturgell is a Hero teacher at Southern Middle School in Anne Arundel County. Her students know she’s a great teacher. Her team members know she is a great teacher. Now you know she’s a Hero teacher.

I also know Emily Manders, a sixth grade Special Educator at Southern Middle. She has taught all academic subjects with competency and compassion. She seems to have a gift for reaching the student with high anxiety or distractibility. She is a calming presence in the classroom. She writes great IEPs and progress reports, and analyzes data to determine which strategies work for which child. She is a partner to parents. Ms. Manders is a career-changer, who was drawn to education as the job where she could share her knowledge, skills, and eagerness to learn. She is a role-model for other new teachers, whether fresh out of college or older career-changers. She is a role model for her students. She is a Hero teacher.

Superman wanted to keep his identity secret, so he had an alter-ego. I don’t think we should keep our Hero teachers anonymous. Let’s name them, praise them and emulate them. Let’s ask them questions, awatch them work and try their methods. They are out there now, working on a lesson plan, and they’re willing to tell you about it. They can bring out the Hero in all of us.

Do you know a Hero teacher? Tell us about them and identify their strengths. Ask them some good questions, and share their answers. Maybe we can start issuing some capes.

Today's Special

September 6, 2011 posted by hdenney

Multiple-Choice Questions

I have a question. I am a seven-year, career-changer, special educator in the State of Maryland. I have earned National Board Certification, have a Master’s degree, and am currently in the Department Chair position at Southern Middle School, Anne Arundel County. You would think I would have some answers by now. But still, I have a question.


We are, by all accounts, making incredible progress with student achievement in the State of Maryland. According to some, we’re #1! We can celebrate that recognition. We can collectively take credit for our achievement gains and success stories.


My own school is making amazing gains in student performance, as indicated by benchmark tests, teacher reports, unit assessments, etc., etc., etc. We study all the data, we analyze the reports, and we try to sense where our students are performing relative to grade-level expectations. I am very proud of my school’s performance at this time.


So what is my question?


My question is one I suspect is hidden deep in the hearts of many special educators in the State: Why am I so worried about MY students? As a school, we push our kids pretty hard. We provide tutoring sessions and re-teaching. We are focused on appropriate differentiation in response to constant assessment. We measure and chart progress. We see and document achievement. But still I wonder… Are my students REALLY making life-changing progress? Is the curriculum focused on what the students need to learn and master for life-long success? Is it taught in ways that will help students apply the concepts?


Now the questions are flying in my mind. If my student is given a review session and then aces a quiz on the geometry of a circle/sphere, can I claim success? After all, I am not yet sure if the student will be able to recall and apply that knowledge to a science lab involving air in a balloon. I am not sure that student would be able to ace that same quiz a week from now - or get it right on state testing months afterwards. If a student can tell me the theme of a story during classroom discussion, but can’t write it in a sentence on the written assessment, can I say she learned it? I believe in the value of alternative assessment. What can I do to help the student synthesize and then apply knowledge? I think students are learning if they are truly engaged in the learning activity and are talking about it and doing something with the knowledge. What more can I do to educate the students in my school? Is there new research to consider? Does someone have a new program/great idea/proven strategy/book that could be relevant?


I am part of a team of strong educators. I don’t have my own classroom, but I participate in many other classes throughout the week. I examine student data and report progress to parents, administer meetings and ensure compliance with Special Education regulations and processes. Those are the tasks assigned to my position. More importantly, I think it’s my job as a special educator to ask questions and to find creative answers. The purpose of this blog is to raise questions, seek ideas and share possible answers. I am but a representative of the many special educators in Maryland who are asking the quiet question, “Why am I so worried about my kids?” Perhaps we should together ask, and loudly: “What more can we do to educate the students in our schools?” I suspect the answers are multiple-choice.


And finally I’m asking you: (1) What are the big questions that frame your concerns about your students? (2) Got any answers to my questions?