Start of School 2015 – 2016

Back to schoolThe start of school is right around the corner! This is always an exciting time and we can’t wait for our Bobcats to arrive on September 2nd. As you gear up for the start of school, be sure to check out the following resources:

  1. Ben-Hem’s start of school web-page
  2. PBSParents article
    • For some kiddos, the start of school feels overwhelming. This great article offers practical advice and strategies to help kids feel more comfortable with the transition to or back to school.
  3. Other PBS Parent Resources
    • This article provides a number of links to other great articles about separation anxiety, food allergies, starting school for the first time, etc.

If you have any questions about the start of school, please do not hesitate to reach out to the main office or your child’s teacher.


Tales2GoThrough an NEF grant, each student and staff member at Ben-Hem was able to obtain a one-year subscription to Tales2Go! Tales2Go is an award-winning kids’ mobile audio book service that streams thousands of familiar titles to mobile devices and desktops in the classroom and beyond (think Netflix for books). The benefits of listening to audio books include enhanced vocabulary, fluency and listening skills as well as the development of background knowledge. Studies show that when a listening component is added to reading instruction, student achievement increases measurably. Students are able to read at a higher level without having to decode each word on a page, and they hear modeled fluent, expressive reading.

You will need to login as a “school” and fill in the country, state and school name as you log in.  The User ID will be first initial last name for most kids (ie: kstoetzel).  If we have two students with the same first initial and last name, additional letters are added to the first name until a unique id is found.  You will receive specific login information from your child’s classroom teacher.  Password for everyone is “bobcats”. Be sure to bookmark your favorite books for easy access at school and at home.

Tales2Go can be used on a desktop, laptop, iPad, iPhone, iTouch or Android. This means you can use it at home, or on the go! You can find Tales2Go on a desktop or laptop at, and find it at the Apple or Google Play app store by searching “Tales2Go.”

Try to listen with your child a few times per week. If you show your child that you like to read, it might excite them to read!  You can include listening into homework time, a bedtime story or on your way to sports practice.

Enjoy Tales2Go and happy listening!

How to Utilize Student Take-Home Licenses 

Ben-Hem and Standardized Testing

If you are the parent of a third or fourth grade student you know that this week marks the beginning of PARCC testing. If your kiddos are a bit younger, you may be hearing a lot of talk about PARCC testing in the community and in the media. Whether you are new to the PARCC conversation or have been involved for a long time, it is important that you understand why we are working with the PARCC assessment and where we stand as a professionals with this new standardized test.

Background and Context

In 1993 the Massachusetts legislature enacted an aggressive educational reform agenda. One major outcome of this legislation was the implementation of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). MCAS was intended to measure the overall efficacy of schools, districts, and the state in ensuring that all students had access to and were mastering the skills and concepts spelled out in the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks.

Just a few years after MCAS was implemented in Massachusetts, the federal government signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). In 2001, this law brought with it a considerable focus on holding public schools accountable by measuring student learning using standardized testing results. The accountability movement achieved the desired outcome of focusing schools on student achievement and using data to make strategic decisions about how to best meet the needs of a diverse student population. Unfortunately, the accountability movement achieved a number of unintended outcomes.

The accountability systems outlined in NCLB detailed serious consequences should a school not achieve at the performance targets spelled out in the law. The penalties associated with “failure” pushed schools to focus narrowly on tested curriculum and caused a high degree of anxiety amongst professionals at all levels of the public education sector. Sadly, this focus on testing and the related anxiety spilled over to families, students, and communities.

As the accountability movement gained momentum in the years following the implementation of NCLB, the tumult and debate over test scores and the performance of public schools continued. In 2008 the federal government made its latest attempt to bring about sweeping educational reform. This time the reform did not come in the form of law but in a competitive grant program known as Race to the Top (RTTT).

RTTT provided states with an opportunity to apply for grants using twenty-eight criteria to judge applications. Grant winners would share in the $4.35 billion encapsulated in RTTT. Four of those criteria focused on standards and assessment. In order to score points states had to submit plans that committed to “developing and implementing high quality assessments.” These federal grant criteria are the fuel behind the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and PARCC.

One of the primary criticisms of MCAS has been and continues to be that it tests low level thinking and comprehension skills. In its current format, the MCAS assessments do not provide insight into the critical thinking and problem solving skills that are so critical to life in the twenty-first century. PARCC assessments were designed to enhance MCAS like assessments by creating testing scenarios that provided those insights into higher order thinking and problem solving skills while maintaining the standardize testing regiment necessary for school accountability purposes. Time and experience will allow professionals to judge whether the PARCC assessment meets that need and achieves its intended outcome.

What are the next steps for PARCC at Ben-Hem?

PARCC is a new standardized testing measure. As such, the test developer (Pearson) and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) need to calibrate the tests to make sure that they assess the skills and concepts that they are intended to measure and that the skills and concepts are grade level appropriate. Because of the need to tune these assessments, the results, in essence, don’t count this year. You might hear educators say things like, “… we are being held-harmless this year.” When they say this they are referring to the fact that the testing results will not count for school accountability measures.

Beyond the fine tuning of the test, there are also a huge number of technical, staff training, and student preparation elements that we are working out. The PARCC tests will be taken on iPads using an application developed by Pearson called TestNav. Implementing computer based standardized testing on a broad scale presents a massive challenge that has taken many, many months to sort out and prepare for.

How is Ben-Hem managing PARCC testing with students?

The public discourse surrounding the CCSS and PARCC can best be described as heated and divisive. Regardless of the public debate, we are choosing to use PARCC as an opportunity to do something positive for our students and for our community.

Over the course of my career, I have heard many teachers talking about “getting kids ready for MCAS.” I have heard parents talking about the stress that their their children feel and I have seen kids get incredibly worked up about these assessments. None of these outcomes remotely resemble what we hope for our schools and our students. These are the outcomes we intend to change and I ask that parents and families join us in this worthwhile endeavor.

At school, we are taking a three pronged approach.

  1. We are focusing on the idea that the PARCC assessment is a test of the test. We are explaining to students that Massachusetts still isn’t sure how good the test is and that giving it to kids will let them know just how good (or bad) the test is.
  2. We are reinforcing the message that these tests aren’t a measure of a person’s intelligence or capacity to learn and perform. Standardized tests, no matter how good, are not exact measures of students knowledge and understanding. If a student took a standardized test on fifteen different occasions, we would expect to get fifteen different scores that fall within a range of scores that third graders normally fall into. Understanding this variability helps kids to understand that the test is not a certain measure of what they know and are able to do.
  3. We are moving away from “MCAS preparation.” This is the practice of dedicating teaching and learning time to taking mock tests and focusing on how to take test questions apart to get the right answers. There is no question that we have an ethical obligation to our students to ensure that they have the skills and knowledge to participate effectively in PARCC examinations. To do so we provide orientation to the online testing environment and the overall layout and format of the test. Beyond this orientation to the test and testing environment we will entrust success on any standardized test to the amazing learning opportunities that this community provides for its students and children.

Here is how you can help.

  1. Reiterate the messages we are sharing with kids. Kids feel more comfortable when they know that the adults in their lives are on the same page.
  2. If your kids mention PARCC, give your children information not opinions about the test. Help them by giving facts. There are many great resources that describe the tests and their content.
  3. Reinforce the idea that they should do their best work just like they do on any other school day. The only difference is that on PARCC testing days they will do their best work on an iPad.
  4. Relax. PARCC scores will in no way limit your child’s admission to honors courses or any other opportunities later in life. These tests are designed to give a general sense of how children are performing and what they may need in terms of instructional focus in future months and years.

There is a lot here and I understand that this is a lot of information to take in. If there are questions you have that are not answered here, please feel free to get in touch. You can reach me at



Classroom Placements for the 2015-2016


Every Spring the faulty and staff at Ben-Hem engage in the process of creating classes for the coming school year. Developing and balancing our classrooms is a major step in preparing for each school year. Classroom composition plays an important role in the success of every school year and, therefore, we invest a great deal of time and energy into the placement process.

Class placement begins in April and extends through the last day of the school year. Classroom teachers, guidance counselors, specialists, special educators and administrators work collaboratively to ensure the very best composition of classes for the coming years. Parents participate in this process by submitting letters that provide specific information about the learning style and needs of their child or children. Parent input is valued and given consideration throughout a rigorous placement procedure.

Every child is unique and brings specific needs and characteristics to the classroom. Creating balanced classrooms that maximize the experience and learning of all students is a top priority for Ben-Hem faculty. To facilitate effective balancing, many variables and factors are considered when creating the classes. The following list provides an overview of the criteria by which every proposed class list is reviewed and revised throughout the process.

  • Kindergarten screening results (Kindergarten placements only)
  • Academic Needs
  • Work Habits and Study Skills
  • Home/Family/Developmental Variables
  • Child Study Referrals/Intervention
  • Specialized Educational Services IEP (Individual Education Plan)
  • 504 Accommodation Plan
  • Guidance services
  • Medical needs and allergies
  • Behavioral needs
  • Social/Emotional needs

Guidelines for Parent Participation

Parents who wish to participate in the class placement process may do so by submitting a letter to Ian Kelly by May 1st of each school year. The following paragraph is intended to support parents in crafting letters that will support placement teams as they strive to ensure the best placement for every student.

The overarching goal of the placement process is to create classes that support the learning and well-being of all students. Given that this is a child-centered process, parent letters should focus on providing the placement team with specific information pertaining to their children as opposed to specific teachers. Requests for specific teachers will not be considered during the placement process. The balancing criteria referenced in the previous section are great places to start when thinking about what you would like to share. Parents hold critical information about their children that broadens the perspective of class placement teams. Every so often, circumstances or needs extend beyond those listed above. Parents are encouraged to share this information as well. Robust information about children supports effective placement decisions.


Talking about Writing

writing-kidsSupporting young people in their growth as young writers is one of the most important and complicated tasks that educators and parents manage in the early years of life. It is important for many reasons but the one that most often comes to mind is that is is essential to communicate thoughts and ideas effectively. I think that this is the reason that most often pops into people’s heads when they consider why writing is important.

There is another reason of equal importance and is often overlooked. Writing is important not only as a skill to be learned but as a tool that enhances learning and facilitates deep understanding. Think about how writing works for a minute. When you sit down to write, the words don’t just spill out through the pen, pencil, or keyboard. When you sit down to write an amazing cognitive task is initiated. You consider:

  • who am I writing to/for?
  • why am I writing this?
  • what do I hope to achieve?
  • what am I writing about?
  • what words will I use to articulate this message?
  • in what order will these words make the most sense?
  • in what order will these ideas make the most sense?

I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. Writing is incredibly complicated but it is also an essential mechanism that we use to reflect on our ideas, to refine those ideas, and in our attempt to communicate those ideas to others so that they will understand.

The review and rehearsal of information is a critical step in the process young people use to attach new information to existing information and, therefore, make sure that it “sticks” in the long term storage of the mind. By engaging young people in writing as much as possible, we actually engage them in thinking as much as possible.

The lesson is this; encourage and support young people to write as much as is possible throughout the day. More writing, more thinking. More thinking, more review and rehearsal. More review and rehearsal, more learning. Learning and learning how to learn is what we all want that for the young people in this community.

So, think about all of the ways that you can engage your young writer in the process of thinking and processing ideas and information.

  • If they have a special meal that they would like, ask them to write it down so that you remember. If they are a little older ask them to write down as many of the ingredients as they can remember.
  • If they would like a playdate with a friend, ask them to make a note of it so that you don’t forget. Ask them to jot down a few things they would like to do during that playdate.
  • Engage them in writing about their interests. If they like to build things, engage them in writing about the buildings and the designs of those structures. They might like drawing or painting, ask them to describe the painting or drawing.

There are a million ways to go about it but the bottom line remains the same. Every time they put pen to paper it’s contributing to their growth as a writer AND a learner.

Classroom Appstravaganza #3

This year we are taking time in the Classroom Appstravaganza series to hi-light the applications that your students are accessing during the school day here at Ben-Hem. This week the Appstravaganza is all about Book Creator.

mzl.xrehjemtWhat really stands out about Book Creator is that it represents a fun but productive way to engage kids with technology. In an age where parents struggle to find productive uses of the screen time that their children demand, Book Creator and applications like it are a welcome addition to the mobile device rotation.

Book Creator does not mince words, it does just what its title would lead you to believe. This is an application that allows children to create, publish, and share books with friends and the world if they like. Book creator is robust enough to allow for multi-media integration yet streamlined and intuitive so that kids can pick up and go with little support from adults.

There are so many ways that this app can be used to engage all children in writing and creative expression. Imaginative stories, writing about their last play date, or documenting their last field trip or vacation are all simple and easy to do. They can publish their tales to the iBooks store for others to read. Knowing that there is an audience who will read their work and listen to their ideas is a powerful motivator for young writers.

Book Creator is available for both Android and iOS devices. There is a free edition that provides all basic functionality and there is a full version that is $4.99 that provides all access to the bells and whistles of Book Creator. The developer’s website has a great blog with all kinds of creative ideas for you and your kids to play with at home.

Overview and Tutorial Video

The First Weeks of School

classroom_communitySchool is back in session and all of our students are here and having a great time with their teachers and all of our support staff. Classrooms are getting up and running and this is a subject that parents often ask a lot of questions about. What happens during the first few weeks of school? It would be easy to just say “Magic!” But that is surely an oversimplification of what is an incredibly complex process.

Community Building

 Community building is arguably one of the most critical tasks that teachers undertake during the first six weeks of school. The extent to which students engage in teaching and learning is a function of the healthy learning environment that teachers and students create together in the first few days and weeks of the school year.

Effective learning communities are founded on a few basic principles. These include:

  1. Shared Vision: A common and shared vision of why we are here, what we are here to do and how the classroom will operate in order to achieve those ends.

  2. Rules and Routines: A common and shared understanding of the rules and routines that will govern classroom operation. These rules and routines are developed collaboratively. Teachers lead the process and students participate in their development.

  3. Strong Relationships: Teachers and students develop strong individual relationships founded on mutual understanding and respect.

  4. Ownership: In coming to respect the classroom environment and understand the people they share the classroom with, children develop a sense of ownership and responsibility for the learning environment.

 It is important for parents and families to understand that this is an incredibly important time of year and the focus is on building a classroom climate that is highly conducive to learning and growth. To do so teachers focus the majority of their time during the first few weeks on community building, routine setting, and expectations. Over time this creates a situation in which teachers spend less and less time on management of the classroom and more and more time on teaching and learning.


Expectations and routines are the tools that teachers use to operationalize the community described above.Behavioral expectations are what we think of as rules. These positive statements govern how we interact with the other members of our classroom and school community.

Behavioral expectations in classrooms are meant to provide students with general operating procedures that give guidance in the many settings and interactions students encounter throughout the day. This is why many classroom behavioral expectations include some formulation of the golden rule, “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” These types of open ended behavioral expectations are most beneficial to children because they require consideration, choice, and reflection on the part of the child.

Consideration, choice, and reflection operate in the cycle of developing and refining human behavior. The open ended behavioral expectations that we described above provide the opportunities that children need to continue the process of internalizing this orientation to their behavior.

 When making choices, the child must consider how they would want to be treated before acting (most of our youngsters are just in the beginning stages of developing this skill). The consideration of self in thinking about others is key to developing empathy and a sense of responsibility. As we have all seen with young children, the ability to control impulses is a skill that takes thousands of hours of practice (and an ocean of parent’s patience) to develop. Consideration is one of the underlying skills that supports the child’s ability to inhibit their impulses and make positive choices.

The notion of choice is key. Children (and adults) make thousands of choices every day and they are responsible for those choices. The concept of choice is often a difficult one for children to begin to grasp early on in their lives. You will often hear pre-school and primary age students say things like, “She made me do it.” Obviously this is not the case and supporting children in developing internal responsibility for the choices they make is an exercise that takes many years. Broad, open ended behavioral expectations provide opportunities for practice and learning.

Reflection is an integral element of the behavioral development and learning process. Helping children to reflect upon and consider the impact rather than the behavior is where the real learning lives. Asking a child to reflect on a poor choice is so important. Instead of demanding that a child share a toy, ask them “How would you feel if ______ chose not to share with you? How do you think you are making ______ feel when you choose not to share with them?”  Few children will intentionally choose to continue a behavior that is hurting another person. Having these discussions on the good side of the behavioral continuum is equally important as this builds confidence and engenders future success. “You chose to share your toy today! How does that make you feel? How do you think ________ feels because you shared?”


Establishing routines takes time, practice, and skill. For children to feel safe and secure, it is important that they experience a certain level of “order” and structure in their routine. It is equally important that these routines are consistent so that children know what to expect.  Many of our children already have some routines established at home; from brushing their teeth before bed or going to sleep at a set time, routines help our children develop important executive functioning skills that foster independence.

Developing independence builds confidence in children, and when children are confident in themselves, they are highly motivated to learn.  Teachers often involve children in the development of these routines and spend a significant portion of the early school days, helping children learn the routines for these reasons.

From learning how to enter school, going from their classroom to Specials, entering the cafeteria, exiting the cafeteria, going out to recess, discovering how to ask for the nurse or the bathroom, to learning silent signals and how to participate in class, or how to exit the building, children have so many routines to learn during the first few weeks of school!  Just think of how difficult it was to adjust to the new morning routine, to waking up early, getting ready and having breakfast.  Now they have more adjustments and more routines to learn!

During these first few weeks of school, these adjustments can be tiring for children.  The good news, however, is that when practiced over time, they benefit our children immensely.

Raz Kids: A Tool for Building Reading Fluency

Fluency is the ability to read text at an appropriate rate with accuracy and expression. We often explain to students that fluent readers read like they are talking, in a smooth and not choppy manner. We measure fluency regularly because it is an indicator of comprehension. Research tells us that fluent readers have more brain energy available for comprehension, which is the ultimate goal of reading. The less energy a student expends on decoding words, the more energy is available for higher level thinking. Follow this link for a great article on fluency from Reading Rockets, including tips on how to help students who struggle:

Reading Rockets- Fluency

Readers can build fluency by reading and rereading text at their own independent level. With all of the books to choose from, it is difficult to know which books are “just right” for your child. Ideally, your child should be reading books that are not too hard (the most recent research suggests 98% accuracy or higher!). Often students self-select too difficult books that require significant inferential understanding and contain lots of dialogue and tricky words, then become frustrated with reading because it is too hard and the story does not make sense. Reading books that are too hard also causes children to develop bad habits; when a book is too hard, children’s understanding is only at the surface level and they don’t train themselves to think deeply about text.

With that in mind, I encourage you to explore Raz Kids. Raz Kids is a website that provides your child with access to digital books at his or her own independent level. Every elementary student in Natick has a Raz Kids subscription. Students log on and select a just right book within a level chosen by the classroom teacher. Students can listen to the book, record themselves reading the book, and take a quiz on the book. They earn points toward incentives such as the “Raz Rocket” or “Robot Builder” features. The classroom teacher can assign specific books for students to record, see Raz Kids activity, hear recordings, see quiz results, and send messages to students. Raz Kids also has a free app available for iPad, Android, or Kindle Fire. Click here for a brief overview video from Schooltube:

Raz Kids Tutorial

Please feel free to contact me or your child’s classroom teacher if you have any questions about Raz Kids (including login and password) or want suggestions for other just right books.

Kristin Stoetzel
Ben-Hem Reading Specialist

Bus Assemblies at Ben-Hem

Rules for a safe and CAREing bus ride.

Riding the bus to and from school is a big responsibility for students. The ride to and from school is a great time to talk with friends and relax before and after a hard day’s work. It can also be a time when students behave in ways that do not seem so CAREing. To help our students understand our expectations for behavior on the bus, we hold bus assemblies during the first few weeks of school. During a bus assembly students from each bus join Mr. Kelly and Mr. Gatto in the cafeteria for a pretend bus ride. While we are on the ride in the

cafeteria, students sit on the bus, discuss the rules, and use hypothetical situations to apply the rules and solve common problems that arise on the bus. Some of those common problems are:

  • How to find a seat?
  • What to do if someone takes my seat?
  • What to do if someone is not being nice?
  • What to do if someone is not following the rules?

Mr. Gatto speaking to a bus full of Bobcats!

Check out the Latin and Greek Roots Program

Next week we are launching our Latin and Greek Roots Program. This program aims to engage our Bobcats in exploring language, building academic vocabulary, improving overall reading skills, and having fun participating in a community building program.

The focus of the program is to expose students to and teach the Latin and Greek Roots that are such a huge part of the English language. Each week I will introduce our students to three new Latin and Greek roots and their meanings. I will challenge our Bobcats to think of words they know that contain those roots or to think of new words using those roots. Students will be able to share their words and their meanings on bulletin boards around the school. In sharing what we know, we will all learn and have a good time while we are doing it.

I am really looking forward to growing this program at Ben-Hem and I ask that you take time at home with your children to talk about the roots and play with the language we are sharing with them.

Our first three roots are:

1. Tele: far away, distant

2. Micro: small

3. Scope: watch, view, examine

Think about these roots. Are there words you know that contain them? What do those words mean? If you think of any, share them on our virtual bulletin board. You can also share your words on the bulletin board in the main lobby!