Preparing Students for College, Career, and “The Test”

Artwork by Kris Lantzy for

Artwork by Kris Lantzy for

I often assert that “Good teaching takes care of bad testing.” I honestly believe this to be true. The classrooms in which students are engaged in collaborative activities, where literacy skills are practiced and integrated with discipline-based learning, those are usually the ones with the highest test scores. Why is that? That’s an easy question to answer: because in those classrooms, students are actually doing, not getting.

Frequent and long lectures, sometimes referred to as “sit and get,” cause our students to become disengaged and bored. They aren’t learning or retaining information and they aren’t developing skills. That doesn’t help with college, career, or test taking, and it no longer reflects what students can expect to encounter beyond high school.

Unlike the lecture hall experiences I remember from my collegiate years, long lectures that don’t engage students are no longer the norm in higher education. In addition to being an experienced high school teacher, I was a tenured professor for fifteen years at two different universities, so I’ve witnessed this firsthand. Universities are now preparing students for 21st century careers that require collaboration, creative problem solving, and innovation. Typical undergraduate assignments include things like working in teams to create projects and portfolios – exactly the tasks they’ll eventually do in the workplace. One study found that “cooperative learning produced greater academic achievement than both competitive learning and individualistic learning across the studies” at the college level (Johnson et al., 2006).

When high school and middle school students work in centers and engage in collaborative learning, they are actually honing the skills that will be in demand in the workplace and in college. They’re learning how to apply what they know and demonstrate their understanding of content.

Because standardized tests are so important to school districts throughout the country, let me repeat, good teaching always takes care of testing. Always. When students engage in meaningful work and practice authentic literacy applications, they learn how to be more independent, confidant, knowledgeable, and competent. In every district where I have implemented the Literacy & Learning Center model (McKnight, 2019), student performance and proficiency has gone up. There’s quite a bit of evidence out there, too, that if we keep purchasing test prep books in order to prepare students to take “the test,” overall student performance goes down. So why would we keep throwing money at a problem if it doesn’t improve the results? (Wilhelm, Smith & Fransen, 2014).

Knowledge is power and literacy is the path. The right to read and write was once reserved for only a segment of the population. Yet in the 21st century there is more demand on literacy than ever before. We have tremendous access to information and our ability to find, understand, and evaluate written text requires intellectual dexterity and speed. The survival of our democracy is dependent upon its citizens’ abilities to discern the credibility and determine the importance of a wide range of information. Middle school and high school are the best places to practice and develop that vital literacy. Creating collaborative classrooms build literacy skills, content knowledge and the social-emotional skills for college and career.

To learn more about creating collaborative classrooms that are rich environments for literacy skill development and content area/discipline study, click here and visit Engaging Learners.


Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., and Smith, K.A. (2006). Active learning: Cooperation in the university classroom (3rd edition). Edina, MN: Interaction.

McKnight, K.S. (2019). Literacy and learning centers: Content area and disciplinary literacy tools for grades 4-12 (volume 1). Antioch, IL: Engaging Learners.

Wilhelm, J. D., Smith, M. W., & Fransen, S. (2014). Reading unbound: Why kids need to read what they want—and why we should let them. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Adolescent Literacy is Different

Artwork by Kris Lantzy for

Artwork by Kris Lantzy for

Regardless of where I work, in schools all over the United States and Internationally, literacy performance, especially in reading, significantly decreases in grades 4 and 5. What happens in these intermediate grades?

As Chall’s research documents (2000), there is a critical transition point at which students begin reading to learn as opposed to learning to read. This transition typically happens around 4th or 5th grade and it is what makes adolescent literacy different.

Most teachers of 4th–12th graders are able to cite many examples of instances in which their students were able to decode text but were unable to comprehend it. The simple decoding of words and recalling basic information of a text are characteristic of the learning to read phase. Yet, as students progress through school, they are exposed to more complex ideas and more detailed information through discipline-specific texts. Exposure to these texts, as well as related digital media, is essential so that students not only learn content, but also learn to analyze information and develop new ideas and understandings. Students are expected to read texts to learn about the disciplines. Adolescent students do this at varying degrees as they march through a regimented schedule, jumping from one discipline to the next. This results in the greatest challenge: how do we ensure that students are developing literacy skills in all subjects in order to ensure their academic success in a variety of situations?

Going beyond the textbook is a good way to provide students with a wide variety of content and discipline-specific texts while promoting background knowledge and vocabulary development. However, it is important to note, that there is debate among reading experts as to whether this is the best way to accomplish this goal. According to Shanahan (in Wexler, 2018), there is no evidence that providing differentiated reading improves student reading. He explains that students benefit more from reading texts that are harder and at respective grade levels. In light of this assertion, I ask that you to consider the work of another key reading researcher, Richard Allington. In Every Child, Every Day, Allington and his co-author, Gabriel (2012) explain that each student must read texts he or she understands. They explain, understanding what you’ve read is the goal of reading. But too often, struggling readers receive interventions that focus on basic skills in isolation, rather than on reading connected text for meaning. This common misuse of intervention time often arises from a grave misinterpretation of what we know about reading difficulties. (Allington and Gabriel, 2012)

It makes sense that adolescent readers should be given plenty of opportunity to practice with texts that they can read accurately, fluently, and with understanding. In addition to providing exposure to background knowledge and seeing vocabulary words in context, accessible texts give readers an opportunity to build reading “muscle memory.” Fluency necessitates practice. It can be thought of as the bridge from decoding to comprehension. As teachers, developing content knowledge and reading fluency is essential. (McKnight and Allen, 2018).

Now the question is, “How do we do this in our classrooms?” As experts in our various disciplines, how do we provide students with the kind of practice and collaborative experiences that will yield growth in literacy skill development, while teaching our content?

 My Literacy & Learning Center model has yielded the results we want and expect for adolescent learners. It was built in response to the challenges that we face in classrooms every day.

Concise Description of Literacy & Learning Centers

The teacher presents a short mini-lesson that focuses on a single instructional “chunk” of information, content, or literacy skill. Often this is followed by a brief activity in which the whole class reviews concepts and practices skills that were taught during the mini-lesson. Then small teams of students rotate through stations. At each station they are presented with a short, specific activity that,

  1. gives them an opportunity to practice, review, and/or apply the skill or content that was taught during the mini-lesson,

  2. they complete with some level of cooperation, and

  3. offers them some small choice in how they proceed with the activity.

This structure allows for direct instruction of content and discipline-based literacy skills, and provides opportunities to differentiate instruction. When instruction within the content areas is developed using this model, skills are not taught in isolation and students receive ample practice time. This is how we develop adolescent literacy skills and raise student performance.

To learn more about the power of Literacy & Learning Centers in classrooms, order my new book here.

To learn about on-site professional development click here.


Allington, R., & Gabriel, R. (2012). Every child, every day. Educational Leadership, 69(6), 10- 15.

Chall, J. S. (2000). The academic achievement challenge: What really works in the classroom? New York: Guilford Press.

Jensen, E. and Nickelsen, L. (2008). Deeper learning: 7 powerful strategies for in-depth and longer-lasting learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

McKnight, K. S. and Allen, L. H. (2018). Strategies to support struggling adolescent readers, grades 6-12. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Wexler, N. (2018, April 13). Why America Students Haven’t Gotten Better at Reading in 20 Years. Retrieved from The Atlantic: archive/2018/04/-american-students-reading/557915/








Sample Unit – Differentiated Reading

One of the easiest ways to incorporate differentiated instruction into the classroom is to build units around essential questions instead of a specific text. It isn’t difficult, has measurable advantages, and once the planning is done, the same unit can be used over and over. So it's worth the investment!

What is an Essential Question?
Essential Questions are BIG questions that require a student to explore a topic and reflect on the meaning of texts. Essential questions are not easily answered. They are never yes/no questions; in fact, essential questions often don’t have one right answer. Some examples of effective essential questions include:

•    Why are some stories worth telling more than others? (Literature/ELA)
•    Why do human beings create governments? (Social Studies)
•    What do effective problem solvers do when they get stuck? (Mathematics)
•    How does the natural world – an ecosystem, an organism, a chemical compound, a geophysical structure – struggle to maintain balance? (Science)
•    How can the human body maintain momentum when dealing with obstacles? (PE)

For more information about essential questions and how to use them, read Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTigue.


A 7th grade ELA teaching team had a unit based around the book, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Every year they taught the same book. As the teachers, curriculum director and I evaluated the effectiveness of the unit we determined that:

• the majority of students were able to read the text independently or with minimal support
• a few students struggled with the text, even with teacher support
• many students were totally uninterested in the book and didn’t really finish it
• classroom activities centered around “proving that you read the assigned pages”
• lessons focused on remembering and understanding (the lowest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy) and rarely approached analyzing, applying, evaluating, or creating.

The teaching team wanted to rework the unit to incorporate differentiated instruction and hopefully inspire all of the students to more actively engage with the text.


Essential question: What are the limits of friendship?

Students were encouraged to choose a “just-right” book from the following options:

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

This 1937 novella has been a classroom staple for decades. The plot revolves around two laborers in California's dusty vegetable fields. The odd friendship between “small and quick” George, and the powerful yet simple Lennie, reverberates throughout popular culture. The author’s writing style and word choice make it accessible to most 7th grade readers. The book is relatively short, but its 112 pages are packed with literary devices like allegory and symbolism. The well-crafted imagery lends itself to classroom activities/discussions about setting and character development.

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

This bestselling novel about a young girl's journey towards healing and the transforming power of love is written at a slightly higher level than Of Mice and Men. It includes a more extensive vocabulary and the sentences are often more complex in structure. We hoped that the female protagonist would be appealing to many students. At 336 pages, this book would be ideal for above- or on-level readers who were concentrating on building reading stamina.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

Exploring the conflict between working class “greasers” and a vicious gang of “rich” kids, this 1967 book is still wildly popular with adolescent readers. Because it unflinchingly explored the darker aspects of teen alliances and enmity, this book is often credited with laying the groundwork for contemporary Young Adult fiction. The Outsiders is set in a not-too-distant past, and because the main characters are teens, we believed that students would find it easy to relate to their struggles.

Scorpions by Walter Dean Myers

A realistic look at the pressures to conform and an exploration of how a culture of violence informs a young man’s decisions, Scorpions is a popular book in classrooms throughout the country. Myers unflinchingly looks at the appeal of guns and the role of friendship in street gangs. Like all four book options, Scorpions has strong, clearly delineated characters and a well-described setting. In online reviews, some educators described this as “a book for kids who hate reading.” My teaching team hoped it would appeal to their most reluctant readers.

The class divided up into four “book clubs” for the duration of the unit. Students were assigned to a club based on their choice of book. Throughout the unit, the book clubs met with the teacher for echo reading, book discussions, and formative assessment. Whole class activities included explanation of deep reading activities (like character, setting, and plot analysis activities), vocabulary development, and grammar observations using text samples from the various books. The students were given plenty of opportunities to practice all the activities in small groups. The teachers scheduled large and small group discussions so that students could debate how "their" author attempted to answer the essential question.

The results from re-working this unit were astounding! Student engagement improved by leaps and bounds. The novelty of choosing their own book – even though it was just a choice between four pre-determined texts – gave students ownership of the process. The small group work (in what I call Literacy & Learning Centers) allowed students to engage in a wider range of more challenging activities. And most importantly, the students read their books!

Try new things to turn it around!

What do you do when:

* school achievement has dropped or flatlined?
* your struggling learners give up?
* your gifted learners are bored?
* you can’t find enough time for your on-level students?
* your classroom isn’t working as well as it used to?
* every teacher you talk to is as frustrated as you are?

You have to try new things to turn it around!

Seriously, don't just complain. Try something new. I know loads of strategies that have proven to work in classrooms just like yours – transforming uninspired classrooms into collaborative educational communitiesRegister for a conference, sign up for a webinar, or bring me to your school for some hands-on assistance.


On-site consultation and Professional Development isn't just for “failing” schools – although they do benefit greatly. The fact is, all educators benefit from professional support, access to effective strategies and research-based models, and acknowledgment for the things they’re already doing right! I have a history of working with teachers and administrations to integrate best practices in literacy instruction to turn struggling schools around, and to make good schools even better. I don’t just talk, I listen. And most importantly, I have a history of proven results!

If you have questions about any of of my conferences or would like information about bringing me to your school, please send me a quick message using the online comment form. Let’s talk.

I Am Thankful

I am thankful for the dedicated educators I am privileged to work with in schools all over the United States. 

Just in November, I worked in the following schools:

Mesa View Middle School - Farmington, NM

Mesa View Middle School - Farmington, NM

Heights Middle School - Farmington, NM

Heights Middle School - Farmington, NM

Goshen and Williamsburg School Districts - Ohio

Goshen and Williamsburg School Districts - Ohio

Skyline Education - Chandler, AZ

Skyline Education - Chandler, AZ

Center for Education Excellence - Tempe, AZ

Center for Education Excellence - Tempe, AZ

Logan School - Logan, NM

Logan School - Logan, NM

I appreciate all educators, every day, not just on appreciation day.

Schools are Always the Heart of a Community

Today and tomorrow I am working in Logan School in rural New Mexico. What a wonderful place to spend time! I am fortunate that my work brings me to such a wide variety of schools all over the United States – and sometimes even to international destinations. I visit at least 20 schools each year: public, private, parochial, rural, urban, and suburban. And one thing is always consistent: every school is a reflection of the heart of its community. 

What do educational “experts” look for when they first enter a new school? How do they gauge the health of the community and learning environment? For me, the first things I notice are:

  • Are the students smiling when they are in school?
  • Do the adults greet their students?
  • Are the activities meaningful and interesting for both the teacher and his or her students?
  •  Is there GROWTH in student achievement and skill development?
  • Is there a display of student work, and if so, does it exemplify the joy of learning?

My good friend and colleague Richard Cash, Ed.D often comments that students have to feel safe, secure and valued if they are going to develop a growth mindset for learning. I completely agree and there is research to prove it. We have tremendous challenges as educators but it all boils down to what my mom, a 40-year Chicago Public School teacher would remind me, “Katie, teaching is always an act of love and social justice.”

Movement, Active Learning, and Engagement: Boosts Content Knowledge and Literacy Skills

As I prepare for my first “Movement and Active Learning” conference I reflect on the 9-year journey with this work. It all began when my late sister, then head of education and writing at The Second City Training Center in Chicago suggested that improv exercises could be used as teaching tools for students. I jumped at her suggestion and after piloting a workshop or two with teachers, we knew that her hunch was right. 

The teachers who participated in those early “fact-finding” improv workshops helped my sister and me to understand just how far reaching Viola Spolin games like Zip-Zap-Zop or One Word Story could develop content knowledge and literacy skills. Rob Chambers, the President of The Second City Training Center, supported and encouraged our work as we discovered the deep connections between improvisation and learning.  We found:

  •  Students loved the movement and creativity when they participated in improv activities
  • Teachers found limitless connections between learning and improv. This is still very true today when I conduct workshops and present at conferences on this work.
  • Students with special needs fully participate and improv builds inclusive classrooms.
  • Improv develops literacy skills in vocabulary, sequencing, inferencing, and reflective analysis of text.

There are more connections but I think that these are the most important. When I present at conferences and schools (most recently at the Association for Middle Level Education and Chicago Shakespeare Teacher Workshops), educators respond with tremendous enthusiasm and share that the activities are easy to implement. 

I hope that you will be able to join me and my colleague, Liz Krane at our one day Movement and Active Learning conference on December 9th to learn more!

Movement & Active Learning Conference in Chicagoland

The evidence is clear: K-12 students have to move to really engage in learning!

Creative and improvisational exercises, kinesthetic learning activities, imaginative play, and mindful pauses help develop interdisciplinary literacy skills and content knowledge. They also boost skills that are crucial for student learning – skills like: listening, teamwork, self-regulation, communication, idea-generation, vocabulary, and more.

No wonder this is my most popular conference topic!

Join me and my colleague Liz Krane on Friday, December 9th for a full-day PD conference in Countryside, IL. Download the brochure here; read more details and register here. Come alone or bring your friends. We’re going to have a great time – and everyone will go back to their classrooms on Monday with practical skills they can put to use right away!

Send me a message if you have any questions about the conference or need help registering. I'm looking forward to seeing you there.

EF Explore America Sponsors My Session at AMLE!

I want to give a huge “shout out” to EF Explore America for sponsoring my session Active Learning and Improv in the Classroom to Boost Skills and Content Learning at the Middle Level Education Annual Conference last week. During the session we addressed how improvisation exercises and active learning not only are a great way to teach content, but also boost crucial skills for student learning – skills like: listening, teamwork, communication, idea-generation, and vocabulary development. The participants were incredibly enthusiastic and we had a BLAST. Visit my Facebook page videos to check out a video clip from the session!

Movement and Creativity Matter for the Development of Literacy Skills and Content Knowledge

I just returned from a whirlwind trip (Chicago to Orlando, FL to Fort Smith, AR to Boston, MA to Helendale, CA to Austin, TX and back to Chicago!). It was easily one of my crazier adventures but well worth the effort since I got a chance to meet so many inspiring colleagues.

On this past trip, I presented my work on improvisation at my Reading2Learn conference as well as the Association for Middle Level Educators Conference (AMLE). The comments and feedback that I received – from fellow teachers and their students – were both exciting and inspiring.

For example, one teacher who attended my Reading2Learn conference indicated that successfully she used the improvisation game “Pearls on a String” with her middle school students the next day as a method for teaching them about outlining for their research paper project.

I received an envelope of letters from 5th grade students at Miami Country Day School who made comments such as, “When you told us to create something like a hurricane, I had to really think about what parts were in a hurricane and what was most important.”

Another student wrote, “I loved doing improv. It was fun, but not easy. I really had to use my brain.”

And, “I love drama but I never thought that I could use drama to learn. That’s really cool.”

It is really cool when students are given the opportunity to create, move and engage in fun and meaningful ways!

Stay tuned for my next blog post where I will feature a video from AMLE that demonstrates many improvisation games. And keep your eyes open for information about my upcoming December 9th conference on movement, improv, and creativity in the classroom. Registration will be open to all and I’d love to see you there.

How is this for a Crazy Idea?

I had just returned from presenting at the Learning and Brain Conference on Creativity in Teaching and Learning when I received a call from Jenny Knight, the director of the Lower School at Miami Country Day School. Two of her teachers had participated in a workshop that I conducted using improvisation in the classroom to develop literacy skills and content knowledge. “We would love to have you at our school and teach the faculty about using improvisation in the classroom,” Jenny announced. As we discussed the professional development, Jenny mused, “How is this for a crazy idea?” As soon as she asked the question, I knew I found a kindred education spirit.

Jenny proposed that we teach parents some improvisation games on Back to School Night. As a mother I had always experienced Back to School Nights that were more informational sessions than showing me what my children were actually doing in the classroom. I thought it was brilliant, especially given the Miami Country Day School environment in which creativity, collaboration, and student centered learning is paramount. Jenny, her colleagues and I plotted and planned. We decided to teach three improvisation games to the parents. The teachers would model the games, then the parents would play the games, and we provided opportunities for curricular applications. Imagine a gymnasium with 200 parents and teachers all playing improvisation games like Zip-Zap-Zop, Alphabet, and Parts of a Whole. These games promote conceptualization of complex ideas. There was laughter and engagement in a community that not only espouses creativity and collaboration, but practices it.

The teachers lead the parents in a game of Zip-Zap-Zop (Miami Country Day School 2016)

The teachers lead the parents in a game of Zip-Zap-Zop (Miami Country Day School 2016)

Parents listen to instruction for Improv in the Classroom activity (Miami Country Day School 2016)

Parents listen to instruction for Improv in the Classroom activity (Miami Country Day School 2016)

All Great Teaching Begins with “Yes…AND”!

For the past two days I have been fortunate enough to work with teachers and students in the Lower School (grades Pre-k through 5th grade) at Miami Country Day School. After a professional development day that focused on using improvisation games in the classroom (based on my co-authored book, The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom) I was able to teach some of the games to teachers. I always relish the opportunity to spend time in classrooms. Being in classrooms with colleagues and students is exhilarating (and a bit exhausting). Armed with a full schedule of classroom visits, I ventured to witness the Miami Country Day School Vision in action. Here’s what I saw:

It is absolutely amazing to me how improvisational activities have limitless applications for teaching and learning. For example, the game “Parts of a Whole” (for a description of the game, see below) focuses on complex cognition, identifying and representing details, and visualizing ideas. The students also learn about collaboration, listening to each other and following directions. Not only are these skills important for academic success, they contribute to the development of a well-rounded individual. As I played “Parts of a Whole” with students, my beliefs were confirmed.

In the preschool classroom, the students created different animals. We broke down the elements of the game into the smallest chunks. For example, as we prepared to create a cheetah, we identified the different parts and how we might physicalize them. I especially loved one preschool student who thought that our cheetah should have a t-shirt. With the older students, we created animals, life cycles, hurricanes, and more.

Parts of a Whole

From The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom. Katherine McKnight and Mary Scruggs, Jossey-Bass, 2008


In this exercise, students work together to create a variety of locations, objects, animals, machines, or anything else they can dream up.

Skills are developed in listening, team building, self - awareness, self-confidence, critical and creative problem solving, and idea generation.


·      Invite six to ten students into a back line.

·      The teacher and the audience select something to create.

·      One student steps out of the back line and announces what part of the whole he will become.

·      The student becomes that part with his whole body.

·      The next student steps out and announces what part she will become.

·      She adds onto the whole by becoming her part.

·      The exercise continues until all students have stepped out of the back line.

·      Optional add-ons:

o   Brainstorm the parts of the whole before the exercise begins. This is particularly helpful for English language learners and younger children. It aids in vocabulary building and conceptualization of the final object.

o   Let the audience provide the parts; the students on stage simply embody them.

o   Once the whole is completed, ask the students to put it into sound and motion (for example, a car revving up and moving forward, an elephant roaring and swinging its trunk, a tree rustling and swaying in the breeze, or other ideas).


Teacher: We need any kind of thing to create here. What do you want to see?

Audience member: A computer.

Teacher: OK, we’re going to make a computer.

Davis: I’m the computer.

Teacher: Which part?

Davis: The computer part.

Teacher: The monitor, where you see the picture?

Davis: Yeah.

Teacher: OK, Davis, be the monitor.

(Davis stands as the monitor, hands at sides.)

Teacher: What shape is that computer screen? Can you show us?

(Davis makes a square shape with his arms.)

Kara: I’m the keyboard.

(She sits on the floor and sticks her hands out, mimes typing.)

Teacher: Are you the keyboard, or the person typing at the keyboard?

Kara: Oh! I’m the keyboard.

(She lays down flat on the floor.)

Samara: I’ll be the mouse.

(She sits on the floor next to Kara.)

Jim: All the parts are taken, now.

Teacher: We have the monitor, the keyboard, the mouse; what else can be part of this computer?

(Students left on the back line are blank.)

Teacher: Can some of the parts have parts?

Jim: Oh! I ’ll be the screensaver!

(He stands behind the square Davis made with his arms and wiggles his hands.)

Teacher: Great! What else?

Side Coaching:

“Work together!”

“Show us what that looks like!”

“What part is connected to what we already see?”

“What ’ s missing?”


It might take a while before students are comfortable physicalizing the parts.

As they grow more secure with the exercise and each other, they have more fun embodying the parts. Their work also becomes more specific.

If students are really struggling with the concept of physicalizing the parts, jump in and model physicalization for them; then step out and let them do it for themselves.

To learn more about using creative play, kinesthetic activities and using improv games in the classroom, see the book The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom.

Formative Assessment Reading Activity

It might seem like over-simplification, but there are essentially two steps to formative assessment:
Step one: “check in” on a student to determine how well (or if!) they’re understanding content or mastering a skill.
Step two: Adjust your teaching or classroom procedure based on what you learned in step one.

Today I’m going to share a new way to check in on students to see if they understand content. This simple activity is a great replacement for those boring quizzes or “paraphrase” exercises that we sometimes fall back on. It can be used with any content area text. And students can do the activity individually, in pairs, or as part of an engaging Literacy and Learning Center classroom.


After they’ve read a text, ask students to imagine that the author didn’t have access to a word processing program, blog, or even paper. Instead, the author had to use Snapchat to explain his/her argument. What 80-character message and one picture would express it? Give students a time limit, say 10-12 minutes, to summarize the entire text that they just read, using nothing but a quick sketch and an 80-character Snapchat caption.

Then share the pretend Snapchats with the class. You’re bound to see some entertaining pictures and funny sentences. But when you assess for understanding, look for messages that truly encapsulate the author’s topic sentence or main idea. While Snapchat messages can be quite short, give extra applause to students who use exactly 80 characters. And scan the sketches for details. The drawings don’t have to be well executed - not everyone is an artist! - but they should include specificity to indicate that the students examined the text closely and were able to make inferences from what they read.

Students can count out their characters manually or they can use a word processing program or an online character counter like

And if your school's technology permits, students can use real Snapchat to create and share their summaries of the author's main point!

An example of this activity follows:

There’s still room at the October Reading2Learn Conference in Orlando, FL.  Click here  for details and to register!

There’s still room at the October Reading2Learn Conference in Orlando, FL. Click here for details and to register!

Standards/Skills-based Assessment

I just got a great question from a teacher: "What are your thoughts on this whole data-driven reading instruction? Do you agree with this approach and is there research that supports this pedagogical practice?" Since I know she isn't the only one who has this question, I thought I'd share my answer.

In a nutshell, "data driven" instruction can be a tool for a larger understanding of where students are in their skill development – but it isn't the entire story. When we engage in data driven instruction, I always caution against “getting too obsessed.” In other words, don’t be held hostage to one way of grading and assessing. Reading is a developmental process and not every aspect is easily discernible by reading comprehension tests. Cultural disconnects, for example, mean that many of these tests are inherently flawed.

With that being said, standardized testing measures can be useful when they are used as a tool for figuring out the “whole picture”. And that’s why, in general, I’m a huge supporter of standards/skills based assessment. Quite simply, in the schools where I primarily work and serve, it leads to tremendous growth and achievement. I have case studies on my website that showcase some of these schools and districts. You can download the case studies by clicking the button at the bottom of this web page.

Many researchers have focused on skills based assessments including Susan Brookhart, James Popham, Margaret Heritage, and Alfie Kohn. I am especially a fan of Kohn’s advocacy for focusing on skills rather than grades. Like Kohn, I think student testing should never be used as a draconian accountability measure that stifles teachers or thwarts them from creating inspiring classrooms.

So many schools are looking for guidance in this area – and I think I’ve come up with an affordable solution. I’m in the process of scheduling a one-day conference on grading and assessment strategies. You can read more about it here. The date and location haven’t been determined yet, but if you sign up for my newsletter you’ll be among the first to know the details. Of course I do in-school consultations and PD, too. Please share my information with your administrators. Invite them to contact me if they want to discuss bringing me to your school. I’d love to help you all implement a grading/assessment system that effectively communicates learning, accurately informs instruction, and meaningfully develops students’ skills. Trust me, it can be done!

Why Literacy and Learning Centers Work: Stories from East St. Louis

You may know about East St. Louis, Illinois. Jonathan Kozol featured the district in his seminal book, Savage Inequalities which many educators read in college courses. Brutally capturing the cruel truth about the inequities of public education, East St. Louis was depicted as one of our most heartbreaking realities. Children in East St. Louis were not receiving the level of education that all children deserve. Fast forward decades later, there is a new administration and commitment to ensuring that the children in East St. Louis succeed. 

The Learning and Literacy Center model that I developed was implemented at the middle school and high school level at the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year and continued during the 2015-2016 school year.

East Saint Louis is an urban district with historically under-performing schools and high poverty. The majority of adolescent students were significantly below grade level in reading. As we implemented the Learning and Literacy Center model in East St. Louis, we placed particular emphasis on differentiating reading materials, promoting skills in collaboration and student self- regulation. Through significant coaching and professional development, the results are exciting. At the two middle schools and high schools, student growth is evident through district tracking that includes NWEA, with double digit gains.

It is evident that our strategy of providing students the opportunity to practice literacy skills while developing content knowledge is working. Consistently incorporating a teacher-led center has proven to be a critical component of this success since many of the students need targeted skill instruction. These teacher-led centers create the much-needed instructional time to target specific skills for more individualized instruction. Click here to see a classroom in action.

To learn more about the Learning and Literacy model used in the East St. Louis School District –
and to discover how you can employ it in your own classroom – join me at a Reading2 Learn conference!

Creativity and Improvisation in the Classroom: Resources!

The mindset regarding creativity in the classroom is changing. This year, I am receiving many more requests on providing professional development for improvisation as a tool for teaching and learning.  Throughout my professional life, I have always been interested in the role of creativity in the development of literacy skills and content knowledge. Yet, when my late sister, Mary Scruggs and I developed the work that is featured in our co-authored book, The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom, we were often asked how this work would prepare students for “the test”.  It was frustrating. Creative thinking and problem solving prepares students for EVERYTHING, including taking “the test”.

I am relieved that there is renewed interest in creativity in the classroom. Just in the past couple of weeks, I have taught teachers at Miami Country Day, Logan School, NM, and Berkeley County Schools, SC. Here are some resources to get started with improvisation in the classroom.


Improv in the Classroom with Dr. Katherine McKnight
Rachel from EF Explore America asks Katie about her views on experiential education and improv in the classroom. This blog post if the first in a series of three. (13 November 2013)

Incorporating Improv in the Classroom
This is the second post in the series. In it, Britt from EF Explore America asks Katie about how she got started using improv in the classroom and why it is so beneficial. (15 November 2013)

Build a Lesson Plan Using Improv in the Classroom
Britt from EF Explore America discusses improv in the classroom with Katie. This blog posts links to two downloadable excerpts from Katie’s book The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom. (18 November 2013)

Remembering to Laugh and Explore: Improvisational Activities for Literacy Teaching in Urban Classrooms
In this article, published by International Journal of Education & the Arts, Dr. Katherine McKnight and co-author Katy Smith focus on The Second City Educational Program (TSCEP). This outreach program pushes back against factors that have constrained arts instruction and integration while recognizing that schools have limited resources. Available for PDF download. (25 March 2009)

Flipped Learning #60: Improv in the Classroom with Katie McKnight
This podcast from the Flipped Learning Network Show finds Katie and Troy Cockrum discussing how teachers can use improv games in their instructions, how to use it to meet Common Core State Standards, and how to build classroom community. (17 September 2013)

The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom: Using Improvisation to Teach Skills and Boost Learning by Katherine McKnight and Mary Scruggs
The Second City, that groundbreaking school for improvisational performance, has also trained thousands of educators and students through its improvisation for Creative Pedagogy program, which uses improv exercises to teach a wide variety of content areas and boost skills that are crucial for student learning: listening, teamwork, communication, idea-generation, vocabulary, and more. The scores of ready-to-use exercises offered in this book can be used to teach a wide variety of subjects – including language arts, math, science, and social studies – as well as to build classroom community and develop cooperative learning skills. All of the lessons are linked to current national standards for the United States and Canada, and have been proven particularly effective with kinesthetic learners and students with attention difficulties. Available at booksellers nationwide or directly from the publisher.