Finding Balance with engageNY: Teaching Fairness with Fairy Tales


My 1st Grade students at Tarkington School of Excellence participate in Classroom Champions, a free program where we receive monthly social-emotional lessons from a U. S. paralympian.  A fortunate byproduct of our involvement with this program is spending a lot of time with my students discussing differences between people and the importance of treating everyone fairly. The process has not only opened our classroom space to many important conversations about fairness, it has led to looking at different texts with a critical eye to learn lessons and to seek to understand more.

After completing the engageNY Listening and Learning unit Similar Stories and Different Lands, I saw a perfect opportunity to promote critical thinking skills as well as those lessons on fairness fostered by Classroom Champions.

In this engageNY unit, we read nine stories, each providing opportunities to discuss the traditional roles of boys and girls in fairy tales. Four of the stories featured young girls who are kidnapped by trickster male characters wishing to eat or marry them. In two of the stories, the girls are servants who clean, do laundry and marry a prince in the end. In three of the stories the male character is brave and defeats monsters and “gets to marry” the princess because he saved her life.  

As we studied these stories I wondered, “What subliminal messages did I just send the six and seven year-old boys and girls in my classroom?” Several students started to make comments, such as, “That’s just how girls are.” Other students said, “That’s what boys do, boys are brave.”

berman-booksIn order to help the students understand that books don’t always portray characters in an accurate light, we read The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs and The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig. The students talked about how they first perceived the wolf and how their perceptions changed when we read different stories.

In a discussion, my students analyzed the characters and plots of the stories from the Similar Stories unit. Then they talked about how the girls and boys were portrayed in each story.

Most of my students considered boys as brave and necessary to defeat things. They thought girls had to clean, be scared and get captured. This moment really showed how much of an impact these stories have on our kids and it showed a need for balance in portrayals of boys and girls. 

Temperature Check: Closed-eyes Poll

At this time, I decided to take a closed eye poll.  I use closed-eyes polls frequently to gauge understanding, check for misconceptions, and before discussions where I anticipate strong opinions. Closed-eyes polls allow the students to see what the class is thinking as a whole without highlighting specific students. It also helps me determine the evidence they need to use so classmates can understand their point of view.  Closed-eyes polls also let me see what next steps I need to take in the moment or in future lessons. They also provide me with a reminder to never assume that everyone is thinking the same thing as the few students I heard in conversations.  

closedeyespoll-2When I asked if girls could be brave and defeat things, the initial response from most girls and boys was no. But in our closed-eye poll, more students (10 to 7) believed girls couldn’t be brave and defeat things.

Over the next week we began working to change their perception. We discussed the importance of what the stories taught us, and how we also need to look deeply into the stories we read.  She Persisted started our lessons about women who have had huge impacts on the world. Already students’ brains started spinning. One said, “I was wrong, I changed my mind. Girls are brave. Just because boys sometimes look stronger doesn’t mean they are. Girls are really brave too.”

Linking to Science and Thinking Critically

As a result of reading several books about women who worked to make the world a better, more accepting and innovative place, the students began to recognize a need for change, the importance of accepting differences and seeing what all people have to offer.  Our first quarter science unit was about animal adaptations, focusing mainly on how sea turtles survive. Several months later, a student saw a commercial at home about endangered sea turtles. The class decided to write letters and engineer designs to help save the sea turtles.

To extend their learning, students retold and created puppet shows (part of their end of unit science task on light and sound), with alternate endings to stories read aloud in class.  Students used the stories from Different Lands, Similar Stories and created endings that showed a female solving her own problem or with help from another female.  One group, had Cinderella attend school and graduate from college. Another group, created a female hunter that saved Little Red and her grandma.

Overall Impact

One of the big reasons why I love teaching 1st Grade is because of the changes that I see in my students everyday. As learners, citizens, thinkers–I love watching them grow and expand their curiosity about the world around them. Enhancing my ELA instruction with several stories featuring strong female protagonists (as well as our participation in Classroom Champions) provided some very clear development in my students’ thinking and choices around the works that they read.

  • My students became passionate about making a difference and social justice. They sought out more books about men and women who made changes in the world and analyzed their character traits. 
  • They were better equipped to identify stereotypes and the importance of not judging others.
  • My girls felt empowered and all of my students experienced some shift in their viewpoints on what it means to be a boy or girl.
  • I noticed more of my students seeking out books from our classroom library that featured female protagonists.

Students also made greater connections about stories and characters across engageNY reading units.  Below are examples of students using previous texts to support their arguments of why Hatshepsut (from Domain 4, Ancient Civilizations) should or should not have been allowed to be Pharaoh (click each to enlarge).

I’d like to know if your classroom made enhancements to engageNY units that transformed students’ thinking–let’s keep this conversation going in the comments below.


Christine is in her third year as a 1st Grade teacher and mentor at Tarkington School of Excellence. She previously taught 5th Grade math and science at Tarkington. She received her Masters Degree in Special Education from University of Illinois at Chicago.

The Art of an Effective Classroom Reset

How will you get students to listening position, like Lewis’ Ms. Cabrera, after the break? Read on to find out!

How will you get students to listening position, like Lewis’ Ms. Cabrera, after the break? Read on to find out!

Ah Spring … the time of year when flowers start to bloom, the sound of birds fill the warm air, the grass and leaves return and students begin to catch spring fever. Post-spring break can be the best of times and the worst of times for any teacher. To make sure you’re getting more good times than bad, an effective classroom reset is not optional, but imperative!

Resetting classroom expectations, norms and procedures following a vacation is highly important as it allows for you to reestablish and reaffirm your classroom culture. When done well, it can carry your class until the last school bell rings for the year. Re-establishing norms and expectations also establishes normalcy in the classroom. Harry and Rosemary Wong, authors of the popular resource for new teachers “The First Days of School” praise this goal of creating stability.  

One of the most important gifts we can give our students is to be consistent,” say the Wongs. “Students need to feel that someone is responsible for their environment—someone who not only sets limits but maintains them.”

As a 15-year educator, I’ve had the privilege of viewing instruction from a variety of different lenses: college tutor, diverse learners assistant, ELA teacher, framework specialist and now academic director/school-based coach. With all of these roles I’ve either assisted with or executed resets following short and long breaks of time. For the past three years, I have been coaching teachers around the importance of engaging in purposeful and meaningful resets. Through trial and error I have noticed some characteristics of effective classroom resets. In this space, I would like to share four of them with you.

png;base648895cbdf8910c4c2target1Step 1:  Be strategic: start with the end of the year in mind!

What do you need to do to ensure that the school year is completed successfully?   Know what you want to focus on and plan the day from start to finish before executing a reset. Take time to reflect on what’s working and what needs to be tightened up.  

How can you and the students enable the classroom to run more efficiently? What do you want your classroom to look like and sound like? Where do you need your students to go?

target1Step 2:  Stand Firm and Be Dogmatic!

Begin executing a reset the very moment the students enter the building. Paying close attention to every move that they make. The way that they line up. The voice level they use. Their interactions with others.  Be explicit and leave no room for students to infer the expected behavior. Think Strong Voice!

  • Give explicit directions paying close attention to voice movement and proximity.  Square up-Stand still – When giving directions, stop moving and doing other tasks. To convey the seriousness of your directions, turn with two feet and two shoulders and make direct eye contact with the student(s) to whom you are speaking. This clip from instructional coach Nick Romagnolo shows the simplicity (and importance!) of this method.
  • Command Attention: When the teacher needs students to listen, his or her words are the most important and should not compete for attention. Wait until there is no talking or rustling. Nothing continues until the teacher has everyone’s attention.
  • Require 100% every single time.  If not require students to do it again.
  • Accentuate the positive. Use positive narration to promote positive behaviors.

target1Step 3: Be collaborative: incorporate the students voices in the reset.

Your classroom should function like a well-oiled machine. A collective effort, all parts working together, ensures that the machine runs smooth and efficiently. And it will take everyone to ensure that the classroom runs smoothly.  

Your class should be a community where everyone plays an integral role to ensure everyone meets their intended goals and learning targets.  When students have an investment in the expectations and norms of the classroom, they are highly more likely to follow the classroom expectations as well as hold their peers accountable.  Additionally, this will allow the students to adopt the expectations and procedures you gave them as their own.  

target1Step 4:  Follow the plan!

Once you engage in a reset be consistent! Begin implementing the revised expectations and procedures immediately.  Say what you mean and mean what you say. When students see your consistency, they will follow suit.

At some point, everyone needs to refocus and reset.  Conducting a reset is a high leverage process that will ensure successful completion of the school year. Remember, it is never too late to start over as it is not how you start the race, but how you finish.

Part of being a great teacher is being reflective, responsive and flexible to the needs of your students.  If you are pragmatic, proactive and consistent, you will see improvement in your students. Remember students are like gardens they need cultivation for real change and growth to occur.

Are you still thirsty for more resources on building a better classroom culture after some time off? Check out these articles!

And be sure to add your suggestions for an effective reset in the comments below.

Have a relaxing break!


Regina is a Fifteen-year educator. During this Journey, she has worked in a multitude of roles to serve the students of Chicago. Regina currently serves as the Academic Director/School-based Coach for two AUSL schools. She specializes in the content area English Language Arts. She has previously taught at Vanderpoel Magnet school, Higgins Community Academy & John D. Shoop Academy of Math Science and Technology. Before working at AUSL Regina also served as a CPS Framework Specialist where she developed and delivered Professional development tied to the REACH framework for teaching. Regina holds an M.Ed as a Reading Specialist. and an M.Ed in School Leadership

Cures for the Grading Blues: 5 Strategies to Improve Peer Review

Phillips' David Wilson explicitly teaches his students the traits of effective feedback.

Phillips’ David Wilson explicitly teaches his students the traits of effective feedback.

Grading can feel like one of the most cumbersome parts of teaching.  It’s time consuming to provide thoughtful comments and there’s no guarantee that the information will be applied to students’ work. The more students are able to refine their work before it gets to the teacher, the less tedious grading will be.

In theory, peer feedback should save teachers a lot of time and effort. However, the quality of student feedback is not usually up to par with that of the teacher.

Students need to be taught how to provide quality feedback and they need to buy in to the process in order to put forward their best effort.

If students are able to see how their feedback can lead to improvements in their peers’ work and if they can see how feedback from their peers can enhance their own work, then they are more likely to commit to the process of peer feedback.

Here are 5 ways to explicitly teach students how to provide quality peer feedback: Read more

Why Can’t Math Be Fun? Tips to Shift Mindsets and Push Motivation

math-chat“Math is plenty rigorous, but it’s not really fun!,” teachers so often tell me.  Followed by…you guessed it, “What can I do to make math more fun?” The answer seemed simple enough: do more fun things.  

But there’s more to it. As I reflect on the successful math teachers I’ve coached and observed, a trend emerges:When students are perceived to genuinely enjoy math, it has more to do with the classroom environment and culture of learning that the teacher has established than with the actual math.  

This more nuanced view on “fun” raises several questions. What role does the learning environment have on students’ attitudes towards math?  How much does the lack of motivation or knowledge or even the teachers’ approach to instruction contribute to classrooms where students’ engagement is perceived as lacking in effort, participation and persistence?

To some extent, all of these things are important. So let’s chat about all of them! Read more

Cooking with STEAM: 11 Project Tips to Impress the Judges in April

The 7th annual AUSL STEAM Fair is coming up in April!

Here are the basics you need to know:

  • What: STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art (as design), and Mathematics
  • When: April 20, 2018 (9:30am-1:30pm)
  • Where: Collins Academy High School
  • Who: Each school will send their 4th-12th grade winners from their respective fairs to the finals. Elementary schools send one winning project per grade. High Schools send two winning projects per grade. Students may work individually or in pairs.
  • Why: The STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art as design, and mathematics) Fair is a natural setting to promote learning of important academic content (i.e., CCSS and NGSS) and to support student development of 21st century skills, such as critical thinking and problem solving—skills that are in high demand in today’s workforce!
  • How: Check out our STEAM Fair resources here (including example timelines, graphic organizers, and project ideas): 

Read more

Halfway There! It’s a Great Time to Reset Your Classroom Environment

Congratulations! You made it to the halfway point of the school year!

Mr. Myers from Howe School of Excellence greets a student before class starts. It's a small routines like this that contribute to a caring and productive classroom environment.

Mr. Myers from Howe School of Excellence greets a student before class starts. It’s a small routines like this that contribute to a caring and productive classroom environment.

Athletic coaches will often use this halftime opportunity to look back at the first half and give advice for how to improve coming out of the locker room. As a teacher going back into the classroom for a new semester, there are so many aspects where I could coach someone who is looking to flip a bad first half. 

How do you get the most out of this new semester? I have found that focusing on building a better classroom environment is the one area which enjoys the most benefit from the least amount of effort.

It’s so important to build positive trusting relationships with your students, and it’s even a component in the Chicago Framework for Teaching. Domain 2a is specifically about creating an environment of respect and rapport in the classroom.

So how does a new teacher go about building these positive, trusting relationships?   Read more

Start 2018 Right! 3 Great Reads for Science Teachers

pic2It’s that time of year again…the time where we reflect on the past and set goals for the year ahead. As I reflect on the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and what’s had the most positive impact on science teacher practice and student learning over the last few years, three readings immediately come to mind.

Check them out, along with corresponding New Year’s resolutions, below.

New Year’s Resolution 1: Engage students in modeling how and why phenomena occur.

Read more

Planning engageNY Math: Tips to Remix, Part 2

In case you missed it, you can read the first half of this blog here

Now that we have an understanding of the standard by doing the math and identifying the standard (see Part I), we are ready to move onto the remaining steps in the lesson planning process:



media-blogtwo2Step 3: Review the End Goal

Before customizing the lesson, I want to calibrate the level of rigor I am seeing on a variety of A.APR.1 assessment items. There are no questions on the Mid or End of Module Assessment directly related to this lesson, so we will look at the Exit Ticket, an item from the Regents Exam, and a non-calculator and calculator item from the Fall 2017 PSAT.

  • Exit Ticket:


In the exit ticket, students are asked if the sum of three polynomials will produce a polynomial. In the Teacher’s Lesson, the answer to this question is “yes”, but does this really demonstrate understanding? Read more

Planning engageNY Math: Tips to Remix, Part 1

The EngageNY Lessons for Mathematics grades 6-11 are an excellent interpretation of the Common Core State Standards and the Standards for Mathematical Practice. But often the lessons are dense, progress in complexity too quickly, or assume [a lot!] of prior knowledge.

So how do you customize the lesson to make it accessible for students without compromising the rigor?

In this two-part blog, I will share a lesson planning process that has helped me to remix lessons to make them a hit for teachers and students alike.

Below is an overview of the process. Part 1 will cover the first two steps, and Part 2 will cover the remaining three steps.

media-20180104 Read more

From Disillusionment to Rejuvenation: Bridging the Gap with Self-Care

You go out of your way to give that one kid in your homeroom an individualized behavior tracker and a pep talk every morning to set him up for success. You positively narrate, give wait time, and strive for 100%. You feel like things are finally starting to gel in your room.

All of a sudden, the days are shorter and darker, and routines you thought were solid in your classroom start to feel like they just aren’t working the way they were in October. Read more