September Teacher Talk

Kelly Harmon & Associates Educational Consulting

Dear Educator Friends,

How are you doing? I think we can all say that it's been the most interesting and challenging start to the school year, but collective teacher efficacy is prevailing. COVID 19 has caused a major disruption that will forever change the spectrum of ways we all learn. You have probably worked more hours in the first 3 weeks of this school year than in the first 9 weeks of any other year. Your impact is evident!

In this edition of our newsletter, we want to offer you ideas and resources for doing less and having more impact on student learning. We have ideas for getting to know who your students are as learners, building a culture of collaborative learning, using brain strategies to maximize time on task, and tech tools for making virtual learning interactive.

Stay well friends and happy teaching!

Kelly, Randi, Ashley, and Cindy

Focus on Impact

By Kelly Harmon

I recently attended a virtual session on Visible Learning with Dr. John Hattie. He talked about what works best in order to cause dramatic increases in student learning during face to face and virtual instruction. Turns out, just about everything we do as educators causes students to learn. However, he said there's no evidence that teaching more results in more learning. In fact, through his vast meta-research, there is evidence that highly impactful teachers don't focus so much on what they or the students will do. Instead, they focus on their impact on student learning. According to Dr. Hattie, it's how teacher think, not what they do, that has the most impact on student learning. This thinking is student-centered and ensures that everything we ask students to learn or do is intentional and designed to move students forward. Dr. Hattie explained that as much as 50% of what is taught, students already know, so there is little impact or forward movement. Rather than following a program or lessons written by someone who doesn't know your students, ask yourself "What can I do to cause my students to learn?" Small teacher moves can result in big learning gains.

As I reflected on this, I came up with several key areas that highly impactful teachers think about as they plan and deliver meaningful instruction. Over the next few months, I will be sharing ways to inform our thinking in order to have more impact on learning. Each idea I share requires that we go slow and teach less in order for students to learn more.

Whether you are virtual or in-person, at the beginning of the school year, start by thinking about how you can build a trusting relationship and gather data about your students' strengths, interests, challenges, and strategies that might work best for them.

Focus #1 Relationships

Our students need an advocate. They need to feel safe, cared about, and a part of a community of learners. Think about how positive relationships are built between:

  • students and teachers;
  • students and other students; and
  • teachers and the families of the students.

Here are a few ways to establish a positive relationship from the start.

1. Start by taking 2 minutes a day for the first few weeks to share something about yourself. Talk about who you are, other than the teacher. Then give students opportunities to share about themselves.

2. Invite students to join you for lunch (or breakfast) at least once a week, especially during the first few weeks. This can be done virtually or in person.

3. Set up a class FaceBook page or Twitter to celebrate the learning with your students' families. Ask students to share in writing the posts and selecting pictures for posting.

4. Use Google Forms for interest inventories. A few simple questions can help students express their interests and preferences for learning.

Focus On Strengths, Interests, and Challenges

High impact teachers don't start teaching until they know what students need to learn. From the first day of school, teachers begin learning about each student by looking for strengths and asking students about their interests.They ask students to talk about what they already know and watch as they perform skills. This helps to determine the students' challenges and entry points for learning. All instruction is based on student strengths, interests, and challenges.

During a conference session with Nicole Dimich this summer, she shared a "one pager" where information is gathered for and with each student. This helps to form theories about how the student learns best and why the student might struggle. Many students will have gaps this year, so gathering the data and working off what the student already knows is a critical starting point.

Over the summer, I created a digital reading conference notebook so that all the information can be kept in one, online document.

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Dylan William, assessment guru, reminds us that “there is just no substitute for the teacher knowing their students.” Establishing strong relationships and data gathering are the first steps to meaningful learning. By focusing on your impact on learning, you will do less and your students will learn more. Doing this virtually presents new challenges, but you are up for the challenge. Be intentional in all that you do and give yourself time and grace. Thank you for all of the hard work you do to impact the students in your school and classroom!

Establishing Culture and Community through the Houses Systems

by Randi Anderson

The Why

Professional collaboration was at play two weeks ago when I went to my fellow teacher (and sister-in-law) Christe Montgomery to ask for ideas for building community and managing behavior. She suggested the Ron Clark Academy house system that her school implements. It sounded fun and engaging, so I rallied the troops in 4th grade and we went for it. It was a hit very quickly. The house system teaches teamwork, responsibility, teamwork, friendship, and leadership.

The What

The house system comes from the Harry Potter book and movie where students are sorted into four houses. We decided to go with the Harry Potter houses and theme for our students. We sorted students randomly and placed them into either Hufflepuff, Gryffindor, Slytherin, or Ravenclaw. We did this so that they would be in a house with others from different homeroom classes. We showed a 2 minute clip from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to show students what we were doing. Each teacher on our team leads a house. I am the Ravenclaw house lead.

Each student came up to the Smartboard and pressed play to hear a clip from the sorting hat (on Harry Potter) to hear which house they had been selected for. The students were SO excited to get their time in the spotlight. Students were congratulating new housemates as they were announced. It was really cool to see.

We are also using Ron Clark’s Essential 55 rules during our morning meeting each day. We focus on two rules per week. Rules range from #1 "saying yes ma'am and no sir when speaking to adults" to #9 "always say thank you when something is given." Students can earn points when we see them demonstrating the essentials.

The How

When our amazing team decided to implement a house system, we first created a board in our hallway to display house points. We update it every Monday morning before students arrive to show whose house is leading. Students are so excited to come on Mondays and see who is in the lead. We also have point boards in our classrooms that we update daily. We add all of our points together (4 classes) on Friday afternoons and that is the totals that go on our community board in the hallway.

Students earn points for their houses by:

  • Being on task

  • Completing classwork

  • Attendance

  • Kind actions

  • Encouragement

  • Working together

  • Listening and sharing

  • Above and beyond work

  • Focused and engaged

  • Organization

  • Using manners

We have challenges with points that our students are working towards together. Here are a few:

  • When all houses earn 150 points collectively = 15 minute extra recess

  • The first house to earn 200 points = Treasure Chest Pick in their homeroom class

  • All houses earn 1000 points collectively = Popcorn Party

On Fridays, we hold 15 minute meetings with each house to discuss successes, struggles, and a plan to earn more points for that house. This is such a cool opportunity to build community within a grade level and also getting meet other students who may not be in your class.

For added effect, I have a watching magic Owl in the corner of my classroom. The students love having a magic owl who is watching for opportunities to give points. The owl is from the book Harry Potter (chapter 1).

We wanted to build a learning community that was visible to all and encouraged collaboration. After all, these are OUR students and we want them to know they have an impact on the community.

As an 11 year veteran teacher, Randi Anderson is teaching 4th grade ELAR in Van Alstyne ISD this year. She has spent the last 6 years working as an instructional coach with schools across the U.S. Prior to this she taught third and fourth grade in the Fort Worth, Texas area. Be sure to follow her on Twitter @randinanderson or on Facebook

Using Brain Strategies to Impact Student Learning

By Cindy Jones

Students’ behaviors have changed a lot in the past ten years. Today’s educators need specific strategies to help keep students engaged and learning. These strategies, which are based on current brain research, also reduce boredom and acting out behaviors.

Movement: every 17 minutes

After 17 minutes, blood begins to pool in the hamstrings and Melatonin is released throughout the body. This makes you sleepy. Movement (just 6 steps) will stop this process for 35 minutes, so have students get up and move around.

Talk to your partner: Every 20-30 minutes

Have students engage in academic conversations to discuss new information. This makes learning personal and relevant. Just the act of moving your head and mouth helps the brain imprint the new learning.

Brain Breaks:

The human brain is not designed for continuous learning. The brain needs processing time and down time away from directed, focused instruction. There should be fun brain breaks to reduce fatigue and rest the brain.

A brain break could be:

• write in the air the answer to a question

• chant the main idea 5 times while patting your head and rubbing your stomach

• stand up if I read a True statement

State Changes: Every 10-12 minutes

When you “change the state," you grab the brain’s attention. Students need a state change at a rate of one minute per year of age (example: 8 year old, after 8 minutes). The maximum time that a brain can pay attention is 12 minutes, so a 16 year old would need a break after 12 minutes, as would an adult.

• A state change is done very quickly and could be changing your voice, holding up an interesting prop, or having a student give a physical response such as a thumbs up if you can tell me one thing you just learned.

Water: Every 15 minutes

The Parietal area of the brain (top of your head) de-hydrates after 15 minutes. This causes a reduction in problem solving and math abilities. Allow students to have automatically sealing water bottles on their desks and sip on water every 15 minutes to rehydrate the brain and maximize problem solving abilities. Test scores can increase by 60% when you are hydrated.

Safe Environment:

The brain is impacted by threat and excess stress. This stress will reduce higher level thinking. Vasopressin, an aggression chemical, goes up and Serotonin , a calming chemical, goes down when there is a high stress environment. Have a calming environment for you and your students.


Listening to background music in the classroom helps many students stay focused while completing certain tasks. It needs to be played at a very low volume and not have words or a heavy beat. Music by Yanni, Jim Brickman (Soothe), and Kenny G are good examples of quiet background music. Spa music or classical music can also work.

These strategies have helped me and other educators to create a positive learning climate in which students can thrive.

Cindy Jones is a 50 year veteran teacher. She has co-authored 4 books and written many teacher handbooks for the Bureau of Education and Research. Currently, Cindy provides staff development to schools and districts across the country and in Canada. She presents numerous brain and behavior seminars for the Bureau of Education and Research. Be sure to look for her all new seminar Practical Strategies for Improving the Behavior of Attention-Seeking, Manipulative and Challenging Students

Contact Cindy Jones at

Impactful Virtual Learning: Tech Tools to Keep Your Students Cognitively Engaged

By Ashley Taplin

Jamboard: Google Jamboard is a great tool to use both synchronously and asynchronously to enable students to display their thinking and foster collaboration. The board includes virtual pens and highlighters, text boxes, sticky notes, and uploading images/gifs.

By sharing the board with the class, students can work on pages together in real time or independently. Similar to a vertical non-permanent surface, students can “spy” on other boards to help generate or compare ideas, and the teacher can observe student work and provide immediate feedback.

Some of my favorite ways to use Jamboard are shown below- as a space to show work, coupled with a Which One Doesn’t Belong prompt, and as an optimistic closure with feedback from students.

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Ideaboardz is another platform that brings more interaction to virtual learning through writing. After determining your prompt, simply share the URL link with students. I love the visual it creates with sticky notes and how participants can respond back to each other, making it a collaborative and reflective space.

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Maximizing Video Conferencing Features

Whether you are using Zoom, Google Meets, or another platform, there are several great strategies to create a more interactive environment. Using a Zoom poll can provide a way for students to engage with the learning target and success criteria, check for understanding, or formatively assess during a lesson.

I have also seen the chat used in a variety of creative ways. One teacher, Kyra Lockhart, asked students to send their answers just to her. In doing so, she was able to provide a safe space for students who felt apprehensive about posting. She then celebrated success and followed up whole class with misconceptions.

Teacher, Howie Hua, also suggested using chat blasts to increase engagement. To do one, give students a few minutes to process and answer a question or prompt, but tell them not to submit their answer yet. Then, on the count of 3 tell students to press enter, having all of their responses show up at once. This strategy encourages participation, relieves the stress of having to answer first, and enables students individualized process time without being pressured by other responses.

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Connect, Extend, Wonder

Lastly, my colleague shared this template from Brian Housand to push beyond a “notice and wonder” protocol and help students connect, extend, and wonder. Click here to access, add a copy to your GoogleDrive, and try it out with students.

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Ashley Taplin is a secondary math specialist for a large public Texas school district. She works with schools to implement PLCs, incorporate strategies in the classroom, and write curriculum for our district. She taught high school math and was a department dean before her current role as a district math specialist. In the summer of 2013, she traveled on a Fulbright scholarship to Germany and gained new knowledge and perspective in curriculum, diversity, and differentiation.

This year she will present the online seminar Increase Student Perseverance to Improve MATH Learning for the Bureau of Education and Research.

Visit Ashley’s blog at

Contact her at 713.824.2939

Children's Literature for the Start of the Year

Looking for great read alouds for the first weeks of school? Here is a link to a padlet I created with the help of a lot of friends!

Upcoming Seminars and Recorded Sessions

Distance Learning: Strengthening Your Online Instruction With 2nd grade Students

Oct. 21 Pacific Time

Oct. 22 Central Time

Oct. 23 Eastern Time

In this NEW strategy-packed seminar by Kelly Harmon, an international educational consultant with 30 years of experience working with primary students, you will discover how to empower learning for your Second Graders using the most effective, cutting-edge, distance learning instructional strategies. You will learn dozens of ideas for working with all Second Graders, from struggling to high performing, along with ways to continually monitor and adjust instruction based on student results. You will leave this outstanding seminar with renewed enthusiasm for teaching and learning as well as a wealth of ideas for innovating the learning opportunities for your Second Grade students and ideas for partnering with parents.

For more information:

Practical Strategies for Improving the Behavior of Attention-Seeking, Manipulative and Challenging Students

Presented by Cindy Jones









Students with attention-seeking and manipulative behaviors are becoming more and more prevalent in our schools. These students are very difficult to reach and even more difficult to teach. They often exhibit severe and disruptive behavior patterns, infringe on others’ rights, disrupt the classroom or online learning environment, and stop their own learning as well as that of others. This outstanding seminar is designed to offer grades 1-12 educators powerful tools and techniques for changing students’ negative behaviors into positive, productive learning behaviors.

Increase Student Perseverance to Improve MATH Learning

By Ashley Taplin

Oct. 26, 20




Recorded Event

Perseverance and engagement, especially in math, does not come automatically to all students. It is, however, something all math students can develop. Join outstanding secondary math teacher, Ashley Taplin, in this NEW seminar that will bridge research and practicality. Learn ways to boost your students' mathematical reasoning, help them purposefully talk, and deepen their understanding of content while strengthening their perseverance and increasing their engagement. Ashley will show you how to make math come alive in your classroom or in a virtual setting with instructional strategies that improve student achievement, develop a growth mindset, and allow your students to take greater ownership of their learning. Teachers will leave not only understanding educational research, but also how to apply it – through dozens of classroom proven, practical strategies – to increase student math success.

Recorded Professional Development Sessions


In this interactive session, you will learn how to teach reading and writing in a distance, hybrid, or blended learning. Kelly will share ideas for establishing literacy routines in all learning platforms, including Google Classroom, Seesaw, Bitmoji classroom, and much more! We will talk about how to have students use digital reading resources and notebooks. We will demonstrate how to teach whole group and small group lessons. You will get resources you can use immediately with your students! Register now and receive the a video and a huge resource document ready-to -use activities for your students! For more information, click here.


In this session you will learn about helping K-5 readers understand how words work in order to become a fluent, skilled reader. You will deepen your expertise in word-learning lesson protocols and engaging activities that will get your students reading and spelling words in isolation and in connected texts. We will examine research practices for guided and independent practice, including games and use of decodable texts. Click here for more information.