Author: Evan Robb

Their Future, Not Our Past.

The question I ask teachers to reflect on is, Are my teaching practices more 19th century than21st century?

And if methods are 19th century is their any justification? In the 19th and 20th century, teaching focused on preparing students to work in factories, on assembly lines, and on farms. However, the learning demands for the 21st century ask students to collaborate and use technology to learn and communicate globally and become creative problem solvers in a fast changing world.

When I was in high school I thought I was a great history student; I was an “A”student.  The class was like an assembly line. I am sure many readers will relate to my example. Every Monday through Wednesday I would enter class and copy down facts from the blackboard. I would start memorizing those facts each night for the quiz game every Thursday followed by my test on Friday. Typically, the tests were multiple choice, fill in the blank, and some matching.  I was good at memorizing facts and did very well.  I thought I was a great student of history.  Today, it is clear to me that all those facts I labored over can all be found on my iphone if a few minutes of time.  I never learned how to think about history, to problem solve, to question, to write.

The teaching I experienced does not prepare students for much at all, maybe to be good at trivial pursuit-but that is it.  Why does such teaching still exist?  It is time for a significant change not just in history classrooms but all classrooms as we work to teach students how to think creatively, to problem solve, collaborate, and to communicate. Rows and lectures are pure representatives of the compliant classroom, what I experienced ,and what I do not want children today to have to experience. The grades I received in those take notes and memorize for the test classrooms had incredible impact on what higher learning opportunities I had and of course others too.  It is crucial and time that some often lauded practices of the past end.

It’s critical to keep teachers abreast of the research best practice and on integrating technology into learning in meaningful ways.  This along with strong leadership can increase the rate of change. When used correctly technology can have a transformative impact on teaching and learning.  When technology is poorly integrated it simply takes the place of items used in past. As an example a SMART Board can become a very expensive blackboard.

We need to teach students for their future not our past.




Increase Writing about Reading

Help teachers understand that meaningful student-talk can lead to analytical writing about texts by having them read professional articles and study professional books. A great starting place is to have groups of teachers read and discuss Writing to Read by Graham and Hebert.  My recommendation is that teachers focus on writing about reading for one unit of study so that students’ develop fluency with talking, thinking, and writing about their reading. In addition, students can debrief the benefits and pitfalls of writing about reading.

Invite one to two teachers from science, social studies, or language arts to share what’s working in their classes. Ask them to bring sample lessons and students work so teachers learn from each other. Encourage teachers who are reluctant o turn more of the talk and learning over to students to observe teachers whose classes are rich in interpretive talk and active-learning.

Focus your walkthroughs on observing the kinds of talk students engage in as well as the writing that follows.  Offer teachers choice when studying a professional book which means that you might have three to four book study groups running at the same time. Teachers should read a book that meets their individual needs. If possible, I urge you to join a study group and model ongoing learning.

Here is a list of professional books that can support your teachers:

  1. Teaching Reading in Middle School: A Strategic Approach to Teaching Reading That Improves Comprehension and Thinking, 2nd edition, by Laura Robb, Scholastic, 2010.
  2. Teaching Middle School Writers: What Every English Teacher Should Know by Laura Robb, Heinemann, 2010.
  3. SMART WRITING: Practical Units for Teaching Middle School Writers by Laura Robb, Heinemann, 2012.
  4. Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning by Peter H. Johnston, Stenhouse, 2004.

Evan Robb, Principal Johnson Williams Middle School and author of: The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook, Scholastic, 2007.

TEN Ways to Improve Students Reading

To develop students’ reading proficiency and motivation to read, you need to balance instructional and independent reading. Both kinds of reading are the foundation of these ten suggestions.

    1. Instructional Reading: teach students to comprehend and think deeply about instructional materials to enlarge their vocabulary, enlarge their prior knowledge, and develop understandings of complex concepts such as human rights.
    2. Independent Reading: in addition to instructional reading, students read thirty to fifty books a year —books they can read with 99% to 100% accuracy. Like sports, to improve their reading students practice skills and build automaticity in applying specific strategies.
    3. Choice: give students choice in independent reading materials and as much as possible with instructional texts. Choice results in motivation and engagement because students explore their passions and interests.
    4. Easy Access to Reading Materials: one of my eighth graders pointed out, “we need all kinds of reading [materials] at our fingertips.” My hope is that teachers will build class libraries with 700 to 1000 books and magazines on a wide range of topics and reading levels.
    5. Teacher Reads Aloud: read aloud to introduce students to different authors and genres and model how you think about texts. Choose materials students will enjoy!
    6. Discussions: these make learning interactive, help students clarify their hunches, and provide accessible peer models for thinking about texts.
    7. Book Talks: invite students to present a book talk a month to advertise favorites. Over ten months, students will be introduced to 250 to 300 plus books recommended by peers.
    8. Silent Reading: set aside twenty to twenty-five minutes of silent reading at school. This can be instructional and independent reading. Have students read at home for thirty minutes each night.
    9. Readers Notebooks: Invite students to complete informal written responses in their notebooks. Students can draw, draw and write, or write their reactions to read alouds and instructional and independent reading.
    10. Conferences: hold three to five minute conferences to discover students’ reading strengths, build self-confidence, and determine whether scaffolds are needed. Show students how to confer with one another and document their paired discussions.


These ten ways to improve reading provide research-based practices that can help students develop positive attitudes toward reading and read, read, read to build stamina and proficiency.


Evan Robb, Principal Johnson Williams Middle School and author of: The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook, Scholastic, 2007.

Follow Evan Robb on Twitter: @ERobbPrincipalbanner

Google Docs for Staff Chats

When teachers and administrators engage in online conversations about professional articles, they are engaging in effective, ongoing professional study that involves members of their learning community. You can use Google Docs to post articles to the entire faculty or to specific departments or groups. Doing this permits you to start the conversation by posting comments and inviting teachers to read the materials and join the discussion. The principal and teachers can read each other’s comments, continually extend the conversation, and enlarge their knowledge of best practices and research on integrating technology into a student-centered approach to learning.

This type of professional study is especially effective for schools with large faculties that do not have regular full faculty meetings or common planning times for teachers. If you are too busy to continually read and post worthwhile articles, invite a department chair, lead teacher, reading specialist, or school librarian to support you. When teachers learn and enlarge their knowledge of best practice, they can improve the learning of the children they teach.

Evan Robb, Principal Johnson Williams Middle School and author of: The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook, Scholastic, 2007.

Follow Evan Robb on Twitter: @ERobbPrincipalbanner