Book Clubs in the International School Classroom

The love of learning, the sequestered nooks, And all the sweet serenity of books.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

One of the cooler trends in elementary education is the push to book clubs. My readers’ workshop class has children that love the printed word. In 4th grade, my primary responsibility is to not get in the way and to share my mutual love of books. I do not take this lightly.

I was fortunate to attend a literacy conference at my school where Maggie Moon spoke of her thoughts on book clubs. Maggie is a former NYC schoolteacher and educational consultant from The Reading and Writing Teachers Project, Teachers’ College. She now works as an educational consultant with international schools. She is an invaluable resource. My fellow teachers  and I love her work.

Maggie promotes the liberal use of book clubs in the classroom for they help enhance reading, collaboration, and conversation skills. “When students talk, they provide a clear window to their comprehension,” says Maggie,” as well as strengthen students’ passion for reading good literature.”

Maggie spoke of her goals for elementary-age book clubs. She mentioned that teachers allow students to make title choices. The groups self-manage their groups. The talk should grow new thinking. The groups will increase reading volume and stamina.

Maggie spoke of the role of teachers during a book club conversation. She coached us to lean in and prompt the students to ask specific questions to keep the conversations flowing. She instructed us to model and to highlight the specific traits of a successful book club. She spoke of the teacher as the person responsible for students to become proficient members of book clubs. She spoke of the need to reflect on the conversations so that you can fine-tune your future teaching points.

In my classroom, I have watched my students conduct advanced book talks. They read, read, read, annotate, and then talk. The groups are messy at first but with time they settle into routines that adults would be happy to emulate. My first years at my current school left me agape at what my students could do as readers, thinkers and conversationalists. Now, I take their achievements in stride and push them constantly to think even more deeply. I owe a great deal of thanks to the  many folks such as Maggie Moon for pushing me to strive even higher as a literacy teacher.

They have renewed my passion for teaching.


Moon, M. (2013, March 03). Maggie Moon LinkedIn. Retrieved from

Related Links to check out:

An Interview with a Master Teacher of Balanced Literacy

One of the best perks of my job is that I am able to collaborate with master teachers from around the globe. My school  houses some of the most impressive cast of teachers around and it is an honor each day to learn from them. With that in mind, in the upcoming weeks I am looking to interview a few teachers to both learn and share their craft. imgres

First off is Colin Weaver. Colin is a master teacher and avid hockey player. He was highly recommended from administration. While teaching literacy, Colin notes each discussion with his students. From his extensive note taking, Colin prepares highly effective lessons geared to getting the most from his readers and writers. Students, parents and teachers all rave about Colin’s work.

Elementary literacy teachers…Listen, Learn, Enjoy and Share this professional development opportunity.

It will be nineteen minutes of time well spent.


A Letter from a Fourth Grade Teacher

Dear Parents,

This letter is for you.

You have my undying admiration. Yours is the most meaningful, most important job in the world. I thank you all for trusting me to work with your children. Foremost, they bring me great joy.

The events in Connecticut, USA, these past few days are a reminder of all that is family, compassion, empathy and kindness. I find myself more than a bit angry. Overall, I guess I am just sad.

I have spent a good part of this weekend talking to my wife, family and friends. Still, I cannot fathom what parents are feeling. Understand that I am trying to “get it. ”

I have no grand advice to give you or your children. I only can tell you that I will listen to your kids and try my best to send them in the right direction. I will continue to push them to write, to read good books, and to think. I will continue to smile and make them laugh. We will have as normal a school day as possible. I will make sure that I am a comforting, peaceful presence in your child’s day.

The last week before school lets out for Winter Break is traditionally hectic. Rest assured that I have already scheduled routine, low-key lessons. That said I expect anxiety levels will raise up a notch. I am proud to say that our entire faculty is ready.

Online there are many articles, podcasts and blog postings offering tips on how to talk to your children about tragedy. They help.

However you choose to talk to your child, please help them remember that regardless of what they see on television, school is a safe place. Extremely caring people fill schools worldwide.


Please allow me to close this letter with a haiku from Izumi Shikibu:

“Although the wind

blows terribly here,

the moonlight also leaks

between the roof planks

of this ruined house.”


Take care,

 Barry Mernin



Shibiku, I. (n.d.). “although the wind .”. Retrieved from















How to Teach Fourth Grade: The Math Test

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Life is good for only two things, discovering mathematics and teaching mathematics. 

Simeon Poisson 

My students recently just finished their Everyday Math Written Assessment for Unit 4 and I thought that I would share some of my ideas on issuing the typical fourth grade math test. I hope some of these ideas help.

First of all, my students enjoy math class for they are highly motivated and obviously supported. I view the parents as partners in learning. They play an important and irreplaceable role in math comprehension. I am fully aware that for a good many of my students, my role in their math learning is middling, at best. That said: we have a lot of fun exploring the subject.

As I wrote in an earlier post, I pre-assess each student before the start of each unit. From there, I heap a great amount of responsibility on the students to take charge of their own math understanding. They learn with partners and speak in conversational tones throughout most lessons. My job is to pair up the students with similar ability partners. Next, I steer the conversations so that each student becomes a little stronger in their understanding. Soon I will have the students write daily reflections on their new learning.

At the start of each math test, the students sit in “test mode” seating. Each kid is responsible for setting up dividers and each table group’s “go getter” are responsible for distributing the tests. Students look over the test and one or two students proactively volunteers to pass out needed math tools such as rulers, calculators or protractors.

Each test  an assessment for learning. Therefore, I routinely help out students as they learn. I pat the kids on their backs and compliment them throughout. For this specific test, the kids asked me to define terms like “withdraw” or “deposit. ” Both terms were not on my word wall so I happily explained what the words meant.

I review before each test on my interactive whiteboard. I am a pretty demanding teacher but I stop coaching in while the kids are taking their assessments. Rather, I celebrate their learning and cheer them on and do whatever else I can to boost their confidence.

I assign the first student to complete the test to collect the remaining tests and to alphabetize the tests according to last names. This helps me grade and input data on an excel spreadsheet.

Each grade-level focuses on a different algorithm throughout the year. This helps the student develop mastery with the four operations while the teachers develop mastery in routinely teaching a particular method.

I accommodate the students with graph paper and hands-on learning tools, such as base-ten blocks. All are welcome to use the tools regardless of their learning needs.

This helps all develop confidence in mathematics, my only goal during testing days throughout the year.


Poisson, S. (n.d.). Mathematics quotes. Retrieved from

Parent-Teacher Conference Ideas for International School Teachers

Having completed my Hong Kong school’s annual Parent Teacher conferences, it is time to reflect and celebrate. After twenty-three years of teaching, I find that I still get butterflies. Below are some thoughts about how I approach each individual Parent-Teacher Conference. If you are a new teacher or new to the international school scene, I hope this helps.

My administrator asks each teacher to focus on emotional, social, academic growth. I do this by inquiring what changes they have seen in the child in these areas. Specifically, I ask parents:

  • “Which kids in the classroom does your child consider to be friends?”
  • “How does your kid feel about school this year?”
  • “What changes in study habits have you seen this year?”
  • “What do I need to know about your kid?”
  • “What would you like me to do for your kid?
  • How has your child handled the move to Hong Kong?
  • How has your child adjusted to the classroom?

Few challenge this approach and I find that even fewer parents are hesitant to speak about their kids. This helps gets the conference started in a positive direction. It also, signals to the parents that I consider their partnership to be a priority.

I rarely set any predetermined goals for any of my students. Rather, I set goals with the parents while in the midst of the discussion. This tends to be more authentic and allows the parents to directly impact their child’s education.  I notate all agreements immediately after our talk and act on our shared plans as soon as possible.

I intentionally keep student work nearby but do not let it become a focal point of the discussions. The work is important and should be presented. However, I have found that it is easy to get bogged down on minutia when I rely too much on kid’s work.  Rather, I keep the conversation flowing by talking about the curriculum and the student’s positive reaction from my teaching.

I offer advice but I always ask before doing so. I have no kids of my own so I tend to stay away from trying to give advice to parents. Conversely, I view that it is my duty to support and to affirm their good work.

I give a “temperature check” of the parents’ emotional state as they enter the room. I sit in a comfortable chair and position myself at a slant in order to be as non-confrontational as possible. As parents leave, I bow, shake hands or give a hug depending on the situation. I always say thank you and plea for the parents to keep me updated on any pending changes or transitions that I would need to know.

Finally, below are tips that I have found to be useful:

  • Offer professional books to read.
  • Acknowledge the difficulties of living overseas.
  • Provide evidence of learning.
  • Stay balanced and fresh. No blogging, paying bills, or vacation planning.
  • “It is not about you.”
  • Be punctual.
  • You are an ambassador of your school, you are a professional, be true to your school’s mission.
  • Be quick to forgive.
  • Be reassuring.
  • Do not recommend outside tutoring ever.
  • Be realistic.
  • Brush your teeth after lunch.
  • Have a blast and appreciate the moment.

So, You are About to Start Your Career in Teaching?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

So you are about to start a career in teaching?

First of all, let me offer an appreciation for what you are about to do. You are now of an exclusive breed of humanity.The decision to teach is still the most meaningful of my professional life. Teaching is a craft. I am still discovering its joys, perhaps more now than ever.

Alas, your first year will be a shock to your system. Below is a hybrid collection of thoughts from the Twitterverse and me for first-year teachers.

I am indebted to Serena Fan, Tracey Carvell, Becky Blair, Benjamin Hartman, Britt Pumphrey, and for their advice. Please follow them on Twitter. You will be glad you did.

1.Observe others. Ask lots of questions. Don’t be afraid to try.

2.Understand that teaching is mentally exhausting. When I got home from my first day of student teaching, I fell asleep immediately and did not wake up until the next morning. I was still in my work clothes. I worked as a railroad construction worker during the previous summer. Teaching is FAR more demanding. It gets easier as you learn the ropes.

3.Focus on one area you want to be really good at. You can’t do everything the first year.

4.As a public school teacher, there are an infinite number of obstacles keeping you from doing your job effectively. Ignore them all.

5. Save everything that works well. Next year will be here before you know it.

6.Keep a journal of each day. Force yourself to write ten minutes a day. Research the work of Donald Graves. He will make your life easier.

7.You will need lots of help. Seek assistance from anyone that appears competent. Everyone in a school can offer you advice. Listen, filter, and trust your instincts.

8.Be gentle with the custodians. They will save your hide somewhere along the line.

9.Remember you teach children, not test taking machines. Get to know each as an individual & honor each voice.

10.Plan, plan, and plan. Structure your lessons similarly each day.

11.Take responsibility for the climate of your class, focus on one area at a time to improve, seek wisdom from the best teachers.

12. Read the curriculum guides. Some pretty smart folks developed these, generally speaking. Let the guides be your mentors.

13.Be a learner & know you have more to do than you have time, so you’ll have to choose. Also attend happy hours.

14. Save your voice. I lost mine by for a week in October. Never shout. Never speak conventionally when a whisper will do.

15.Ask for help/find a mentor/partner/someone you trust.

16.Keep your political views to yourself. I told my students about my anti-war stance during the first Gulf War and got into a bit of hot water. (Does anyone use the term” hot water” anymore?)

17.Embrace technology as a tool, but choose wisely. Do not allow technology to interfere with the learning process.

18. Enjoy every moment. You will create memories for a lifetime.


Feel free to contact me if you need any advice. I have seen it all in the elementary education classroom. 

Take care, do well and best of luck to you.


Barry Mernin

Reflections on Instructional Strategies

Essential Questions

As I teach, I try to begin each lesson discussing the essential questions of the particular unit of study. I review what we worked on the previous lesson and talk about the enduring understandings from the unit. This is a habit that is relatively new for me. This practice has evolved as I have gained more experience with the backwards by design approach to education.


I am constantly looking to improve my one-to-one listening skills. I am a strong advocate in actively listening and responding to student inquiries and not unthinkingly following a teachers‘ guide. I am regularly in search of a “just-right” approach to each teaching moment. This takes mental discipline and a class that views itself and our work together as meaningful. I often experiment with new materials and ideas and I on occasion, make mistakes. However, the students seem to appreciate my risk taking and accept my rare lesson ideas that flop.


I assess students daily. I teach with regard and respect to how the human brain acquires information. I differentiate individual math lessons from unit pre assessments. I have learned to gather a plethora of information from thoroughly inspecting student-reading logs. I customarily investigate, then compliment, and then teach, during student-to-teacher conversation.

I habitually start each writing conference by asking, “So, what are you working on today?” I then begin the process of listening, reading and searching for meaningful strategies to improve student writing. With experience, I am becoming adept in improving my time-sensitive conversational skills. I have learned quite a bit from Lucy Calkins, Katie Wood Ray and the late Donald Graves. I am quite grateful for their work. They each have had a profound influence on my life.

I base each teacher-to-student meeting on pre-assessment results. I am quite proud of my work and applications in this approach. Differentiation is a fixation as I progress through this year.

Classroom Management

My classroom management style is one where fun is instrumental to each lesson. At the start of each year, I model and teach good habits to my students and consistently look to help them create a learning community that respects and helps each other learn. I view my daily routine as not merely a “guide on the side” but rather a connector of students to habits of mind. I listen, respond, synthesize, and inquire. I rarely lecture.

Progress Report Narratives

My narrative report card writing focuses on positive habits and traits that my students use. I work exceedingly hard at individualizing my comments in a way that respects my students’ hard work. I craft each sentence in a style that leaves a positive impression. These narratives take relatively one hour per student to complete resulting in a 60-70 hour workweek.

The Experts

I have had many opportunities to learn from Bambi Betts, Robert Marzano, and Grant Wiggins in creating effective assessment tools. I am constantly looking to offer a variety of assessment tools and strategies that work. Bambi Betts has particularly taught me to develop assessment tools that students view as meaningful. I am quite proud of my work in this regard. I strongly believe that all assessment results be shared with the students and parents. I have found that this habit is greatly appreciated and helps me develop trust in my work.

I work hard to intentionally, consistently, and meaningfully reflect on my work and that of my students. I regularly have my students show their goals. I applaud their writings and use them to build meaning in future conversations.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.