Congress Breathes New Life into Striving Readers Programs

The budget compromise recently hammered out in Washington breathes new life into a major literacy initiative at the U.S. Department of Education.

Congress restored the moribund Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy program, which seeks to promote literacy from birth to the end of high school, as part of an omnibus spending bill for fiscal 2012 that President Barack Obama signed into law late last month. The literacy program received no federal aid last year, but in a quirk of the budget process, money from the year before that is fueling $180 million in grants was awarded to six states in September.  The Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy (SRCL) program is authorized  under the Title I demonstration authority (Part E, Section 1502 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – ESEA).

The purpose of the Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy (SRCL) discretionary grants is to create a comprehensive literacy program to advance literacy skills — including pre-literacy skills, reading, and writing — for students from birth through grade 12, including limited-English-proficient students and students with disabilities. carries a wide selection of instructional materials that qualify for the Striving Readers program.  Browse materials for students in preschool through high school to enhance teaching and learning in reading comprehension, ESL, special education and more.

The Long-Term Impacts of Teachers

Okay… first of all, did you know that there actually is a Value-Added Research Center?  I didn’t.  But the Value-Added Research Center, part of the University of Wisconsin, performs groundbreaking work on value-added systems, program and policy evaluation, and data-driven decision making.  These researchers look at studies like The Long-Term Impacts of Teachers that examines the impact of a teacher’s “value-added.”  “Value-added” is defined as the average test-score gain for a teacher’s students, adjusted for differences across classrooms in student characteristics (such as their previous scores). The question these researchers explored in the study:   Is teacher value-added a good measure of teacher quality?  In investigating the long-term impacts of “effective teachers”, the scientists that found elementary- and middle-school teachers who help raise their students’ standardized-test scores have a wide-ranging, lasting positive effect on those students’ lives even beyond academics.

The study tracked 2.5 million students over 20 years showed that students who raised their standardized test scores not only enjoyed higher college matriculation rates and increased adult earnings, but they also had  lower teenage-pregnancy rates.  On average, having a high value-added teacher for one year in grades 4-8 was shown to raise a child’s lifetime income by $9,000.  “If you leave a low value-added teacher in your school for 10 years, rather than replacing him with an average teacher, you are hypothetically talking about $2.5 million in lost income,” said Professor Friedman, one of the coauthors of the study.

This study, which adds to the already engaged debate about holding teachers accountable for student test scores is likely to influence the metrics by which we measure teacher effectiveness. One camp argues that incorporating metrics to measure teacher effectiveness can only improve the educational outcome of our students.  The other camp maintains that it is impossible to isolate the effect of a single teacher with so many variables involved in student performance (including parental involvement, student intelligence, social factors, extra-curriculars, student motivation, etc.), and we do good teachers a grave disservice by using student test scores to evaluate them.

Nonetheless, many school districts have begun to use value-added metrics to influence decisions on hiring, salary,  and even firing.  It is safe to say that everyone believes that teacher quality is important.  But maybe this study demonstrates just how important, and the long-term impacts that teacher quality can have on students.  Or…. one could argue that it demonstrates the long-term impacts that standardized test scores have on students and that teacher quality is just one variable in that equation.  Student achievement is a complex recipe that includes effective teachers.  But it also includes high student motivation, parental involvement, good attendance, homework completion, out-of-school learning experiences, etc.

Whichever side of the debate you lean, as we approach standardized testing season, equipping students with the knowledge, skills, motivation, and confidence they need to perform their best is essential.  And, according to some researchers, their performance could have effects that reverberate long after the tests are graded. carries a wide selection of educational materials to help teachers and parents prepare students for the big test.  Browse the entire selection of standardized test prep resources and download a free downloadable letter to print and send to parents.

Build a Foundation for STEM with Music

A new instrumental music program for at-risk preschool students in Osceola County, Fla., is aimed at helping develop language, motor, social and other skills to help prepare them for kindergarten. The students receive instruction from a professional violinist during 20-minute sessions held twice a week. “This project really isn’t about making them violin players, it’s about making them kindergarten-ready,” said Debbie Fahmie, fine- and performing-arts resource teacher for Osceola schools.

The folks at Osceola may just be on to something.  Brain research indicates that students who are exposed to music instruction –specifically string instruction –have better attention spans, are able to see patterns, and have greater success with letter and number recognition.  Other research that explores the link between music and intelligence reports that music training–specifically piano instruction–is far superior to computer instruction in dramatically enhancing children’s abstract reasoning skills necessary for learning math and science.

Findings published in the February 1997 issue of Neurological Research, are the result of a two-year experiment with preschoolers, led by psychologist Dr. Frances Rauscher of the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh and physicist Dr. Gordon Shaw of the University of California at Irvine. As a follow-up to their ground breaking studies indicating how music can enhance spatial-reasoning ability, the researchers compared the effects of musical and non-musical experiences with early intellectual development.  The experiment included four groups of preschoolers: one group received private piano/keyboard lessons; a second group received singing lessons; a third group received private computer lessons; and a fourth group received no training. Those children who received piano/keyboard training performed 34% higher on tests measuring spatial-temporal ability than the others. These findings indicate that music uniquely enhances higher brain functions required for mathematics, chess, science and engineering.

Experts maintain that these studies reinforce a causal link between music and intelligence.  Early experiences determine which brain cell (neurons) will connect with other brain cells, and which ones will die away. Because neural connections are responsible for all types of intelligence, a child’s brain develops to its full potential only with exposure to the necessary enriching experiences in early childhood.  Music training generates the neural connections used for abstract reasoning, including those necessary for understanding mathematical concepts.

On might think this could certainly change the way educators view, plan, and budget the core school curricula.  Since music nurtures the intellect and produces long-term academic improvements, it is difficult to understand why some educational organizations have chosen to cut music programs – especially in early childhood.  With STEM initiatives on the rise, perhaps funding should also incorporate music and other arts that are so critical to child development. offers the best selection in educational materials to enhance instruction in preschool through high school.  Browse our selection of early childhood resources, resources for teachers and parents of students in the elementary and upper grades, ebooks for teachers, classroom decorations, bullying and conflict resolution programs, and more.

No Excuses – Not Just for Teachers

I stumbled across a New York Times op-ed piece by eighth grade teacher Laura Klein today that really resonated. Klein makes the case for applying a “no excuses” approach to teaching students, including those who are English-language learners or who have special needs. “There’s always a reason for a child’s behavior. It’s important to understand the reason, but it’s equally important to remember that a reason is not an excuse,” she writes.

As teachers, we want to provide support, encouragement, and understanding that some things are beyond a child’s control.  But, as Klein points out, at what point do excuses become crutches with long-lasting effects?  Master teachers find ways to understand the individual student, help them develop their own repertoire of strategies for academic success, and ultimately, own the learning process.  The overarching goal of education is preparing our students to be productive, contributing, and successful in life.  I submit that teaching children to leverage their strengths, improve upon their weaknesses, and overcome their obstacles have far greater payoffs than enabling them with excuses. carries the best selection of trusted instructional materials for students in preschool through high school.  Browse our selection of early childhood materials, special education resources, teaching materials for elementary and upper grades, ebooks for teachers and more.

A Boost for Early Childhood Education

Nine states that won Race to the Top grants to improve early-childhood education all presented plans that include collaboration across government agencies to achieve their goals. Such efforts often take place in silos, but the “holistic approach is one thing that ties together the nine [winning] states,” said Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services, at a White House event Dec. 16 to announce the winners.

Education officials hope the Race to the Top–Early Learning Challenge will spark widespread reform of programs that serve the youngest children – parallel to changes that have been seen in K-12 in response to the initial $4 billion Race to the Top competition.

California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina,Ohio, Rhode Island, and Washington will receive four-year grants for their comprehensive plans to increase early-education quality and close gaps, particularly for low-income children, in school readiness.

“At a time when many states have cut early-childhood education programs because of severe budget constraints, the Obama administration is trying to send a signal that investments today in this area could yield big returns for the economic and social well-being of the country tomorrow.”

“Investing in early learning is one of the smartest things we can do,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan at a White House event Friday morning where the winning states were announced. “If we’re going to be serious about actually closing achievement gaps … nothing is more important than getting our babies off to a good start.”

See full article here. carries a wide variety of early childhood education supplies,  materials, and resources as well as instructional resources for students in K-12.

Technology has Developed a New Kind of Learner

These are my nephews.  The 16 year old is  updating his Facebook status on his mobile device.  The 3 year old is playing an ABC game in his iPod Touch… he doesn’t have a Facebook page yet, but he will never know what life was like before  Facebook.  Amazing!

What is even more amazing is that students are different today because of technology. They learn differently, they think differently, they communicate differently.  Teachers know this, but this change is about much more than “text speak” and decreasing attention spans. According the Pew Research Center, three things have combined to change the context of learning:   widespread access to broadband Internet connectivity, social networking forums, and the near ubiquity of mobile computing.  According to the experts, these three things are producing a new kind of learner, one that is “self-directed, better equipped to capture information, more reliant on feedback from peers, more inclined to collaborate, and more oriented toward being their own nodes of production.” (Read the entire article here.)

Having spent 10 years in an elementary classroom, I watched as technology became a tool that engaged kids, motivated them, and sparked creativity that wasn’t apparent in traditional pencil paper activities.  I watched children who couldn’t write a book report create a spectacular interactive  multimedia presentation complete with story elements, cohesive ideas, and higher level thinking.  All with the expressed intent of sharing with  peers and eliciting feedback.

Technology enables our students to go beyond learning and publish original works.   Today’s kids view social networks and collaboration forums as a sort of performance stage… performing for people they know as well as for people they don’t know.  It isn’t important to my nephew that he doesn’t know the over 1000 friends he’s collected on Facebook.  What is important to him is that he has an audience reading, evaluating, and commenting on  his updates, posts, and shared links.  Facebook is one place where he can express himself and interact with others – also evaluating, reading and commenting on their posts.  How cool would it be if the education world truly learned how to harness that kind of motivation in the learning experiences that we’re providing our students? is a leading provider of educational materials for teachers, parents and students from preschool through high school.  Browse the wide selection of instructional technology materials such as interactive whiteboard resources, instructional software, electronic learning games, and more designed to enhance teaching and learning.

Teacher’s Survival Strategies for December

December is a crazy month!  The excitement of the holidays, the frequent interruptions to instructional time, and the seemingly endless supply of sugar and sweets can throw both teachers and students out of kilter and out of focus.  As hard as we try to maintain the “business as usual” mantra, some days it just seems impossible.  Between holiday play practice, visits to the Secret Santa Shop, the thrill of the concerts and other performances, and the anticipation of the holiday break, it seems like when we do have the students physically, their attention span is challenged by all of the other things going on.

Teachers know that time is one of their most valuable resources – both for preparation and instruction.  Some simple organization and planning tips can help reduce the stress and maintain instructional time in your classroom throughout the month of December.

Plan for the unexpected. December is full of unexpected – guests, interruptions, snow days, and sick days.  Good planning and preparation is especially important.  Take an extra 10-15 minutes each morning to make sure that you have the materials you need for the day.  Spend a few minutes at the end of each day to take a quick look at the next day.  Sometimes, just a mental checklist can be an effective way to minimize those overwhelming feelings.  Also, try not to get too worked up if your plans are disrupted.

Busy does not equal busy work. Keep your students engaged and don’t rely on endless worksheets.  They have more energy this time of year, so give them plenty of reasons to get up and move around the room rather than restrict them from it.  Set up simple classroom learning centers (flash cards, manipulatives, activity cards, etc.) and let kids rotate through them for shorter time periods.  Provide both structure and fun learning opportunities while building in movement and activity.

Catch kids being good. Behavior is more likely to be an issue now, especially with the students that need a great deal of structure.  Look for examples of good behavior and really emphasize the positives.  One way to both reinforce good behavior and communicate it with parents is to prepare a postcard (addressed and stamped) for each student.  Depending on the grade level of your kiddos, you can even ask them to fill in the address.  Knowing that you’re looking for good behavior to report to parents can build some excitement and motivation for students.  When you “catch someone being good,” simply jot a quick note on the postcard and drop it in the mail.  You’ll also know very quickly which students have not received a postcard from those that you still have.

The power of Peppermint. It may sound like an old wives’ tale, but numerous studies link the effects of peppermint with improved mental performance, attention span, and cognitive functioning.  Use a peppermint rented room spray or fill up the candy jar with peppermint candies. carries the best selection of instructional materials for the classroom and at home for children in preschool through high school. All orders ship the next business day.  Also, check out our extensive selection of eBooks for teachers – the growing trend among educators for immediate download and no shipping charges.

Best Practices for Educators using Facebook

While kids may be immersed in the social media world, many schools and districts are still mighty uncomfortable with the idea of using Facebook and other social media forums in the classrooms.  But a recent study (Too much face and not enough books: The relationship between multiple indices of Facebook use and academic performance) published last week in Computers in Human Behavior, analyzes 1,839 college students’ survey data about Facebook use and actual grades (as opposed to self-reported grades). It also takes into account students’ high-school GPAs. The results show that Facebook use in and of itself is not detrimental to academic outcome.   Author Reynol Junco, a professor at the Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania maintains, “It depends how it’s used.”

Since this is a platform with very little learning curve for most kids, some educators are looking for ways that they can use Facebook to their advantage.  Junco offers some suggestions for ways that Facebook can be used effectively in the classroom.

Use Facebook with a Focus.  “Instead of telling your students, ‘Hey, we are going to use Facebook for this course,’” Junco says, “it’s important to frame Facebook use in a way that will make sense. For instance, you could say ‘we are going to use a Facebook group in order to interact with each other, discuss course topics, and share links of interest.”

Friend with Caution.  Just as it would be appropriate for teachers and students to “hang out” in reality, the same rule applies on the Internet.  Avoid “friending” students and use tools that promote a sense of public participation.  Use Groups and Pages to communicate with students in an open and transparent way.  Both are public and both can be used to compile relevant resources for students.

Consider other Tools. Consider other options beyond Facebook that can facilitate sharing ideas, files, or assignments in a virtual space.  Edmodo, Collaborize Classroom and Edublogs are three platforms that are generally not blocked by school filters. Teachers can also control how private they want the blogs to be. They can keep them student-and-teacher only, allow parents to log in with a password, or make them open to the public.

See the full article here.

While Facebook and other social media platforms may not ever be fully embraced in the educational system, the key is that some educators are creatively using technology that students already use in a way that helps students connect with each other and provides a forum for academic support. Meeting kids where they are sometimes means that we also have to explore new tools.

Let us know what you think.  We’d love to hear from you. is a trusted provider of educational resources for teachers, parents, and students in preschool through high school.

Teaching Students to be Better Digital Citizens

A November 20, 2011 article in USA Today sheds light on the growing trend for educational organizations to provide courses for Internet etiquette and safety. Many schools not only are incorporating Internet safety into lesson plans but also including online safety courses that covers topics like cyberbullying, plagiarism and online “ethical behavior.

“All of the drama, all of the growing up, all of the growing pains, all of the things we know happen in high school now also happen digitally,” says Chris Lehmann of Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy. “Think of every mistake you made as a teenager. Now imagine making that mistake in a permanent public forum.”

New findings show that even young children spend time online. A national survey released in October by Common Sense Media found that 41% of children 8 and younger have access to a smartphone and 13% have spent time on social networking sites and virtual worlds.  The challenge that many schools are addressing is teaching kids that what they say or do online can have an immediate, profound impact on others as well as their own future.

Read the entire article at USA

As children grow more and more tech savvy, bullying and character education issues have grown more complex.  Many schools and youth organizations are implementing programs to help children develop the necessary skills to address bullying and cyberbullying – as the bully, the victim, and the bystander.  Furthermore, character education programs have expanded in many schools to include students’ “digital footprint.”  If your organization has a successful bullying or character education program in place, let us know.  We’d love to hear from you. carries a wide variety of bullying postersbooks, and other conflict resolution and character education resources that help parents and teachers address bullying in the classroom.

Learning Games for Kids – Part 6

We promised to share the best learning games for kids this holiday season.  We’ve selected over 100 of the best games, gadgets, and toys that will keep your children engaged and learning long after the excitement of the holidays has passed.  And remember, every product in our holiday gift guide ships free!  Right there from your easy chair, you can get a headstart on your holiday shopping with fun family games, electronic toys, arts and craft kits, and more!  This week, we want to share one of our top picks from the Electronic Learning Games category.

LeapFrog Leapster Explorer

The  Leapster Explorer™, an extraordinary new learning experience that encourages children to discover something new every day with endless ways to play and learn–from games, e-Books, videos, and online play to customizable learning skills and more, is one of our top gift picks this year.  The Leapster includes a library of more than 40 games and activities includes cartridge games, downloadable learning apps (games, e-Books, videos, and flash cards), a camera/video recorder and more.  Children can learn school skills like reading, math, science and geography, plus creativity and life skills like music, health and problem solving.  Expand the fun and learning in LeapWorld™–a safe, online world of learning games and activities. Children can play unique games that connect their online and on-the-go play and learning.  Parents can connect to the online LeapFrog® Learning Path to see what their child is playing and learning, and explore ways to expand their child’s learning journey.

The Leapster Explorer is the winner of the 2011 Educational Toy of the Year Award! Perfect for kids ages 4-9, the Leapster teaches math, reading, science and geography.  Your kids will have so much fun, they won’t even know they are learning!

The LeapFrog Leapster Explorer, the Leapster Explorer case, and the Leapster Explorer recharger are all available now with free shipping from We also carry a wide range of LeapFrog learning games, too! has the best selection of  electronic learning gamestoys for creative playarts & crafts kitsactivity books, and fun family games that kids will love. And with free shipping on our special holiday gift selection, how can you go wrong?