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 www.tales2go.com, 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 ikelly@natickps.org



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

Just how complicated is it for kids to follow directions?



In our last post we talked at length about reading and interpreting the Report on Student Progress (ROSP). In this week’s post we turn our attention to look at tools and strategies that families can use to develop strong work habits in their children. Our goal is to support families in their efforts to teach and support these skills proactively throughout their child’s life.

The ROSP relies on an observation based rating scale when it comes to rating a child’s development of articulated work habits. The rating system focuses on the frequency with which the teacher observes a given behavior. These observations are captured in  the ratings: Rarely (R), Sometimes (S), and Usually (U). No matter the rating, it is critical that parents reach out to teachers and educational professionals if they have concerns about the development of these skills.

One of the  complexities in supporting and learning effective work habits is that they each represent a series of embedded and related skills. Because of this, it can be hard to know how best to support children in practicing and developing those skills. To support families in this endeavor we are going to take the next few posts and explore the prerequisite skills  for each work habit and easy to use strategies that families can employ to support them. This week we are going to focus on following written and oral directions.

Follows directions accurately (written and oral)

Embedded Skills

  1. Focused, sustained attention: Child attends to the source of directions until directions have been communicated.
  2. Language: Child is able to read and/or hear the directions.
  3. Comprehension: Child fully understands the given directions.
  4. Self-Monitoring: Child monitors comprehension for understanding.
  5. Self-advocacy: Child has strategies to ensure that they understand the given direction.  This includes, but is not limited to, asking for help when needed.


  1. Focused, sustained attention: Always be sure that you have your child’s attention before giving directions. Their bodies should be facing you and you should require eye contact before giving directions. If the child breaks eye contact or turns away while the direction is being given, discontinue the direction until they provide you with full attention.
  2. Language/Comprehension: Have the child restate the direction in their own words. Family members can simply ask, “What did I just ask you to do?” or “What is the homework assignment asking you to do?” Asking this simple question is a sure fire way to tell if the child understands the given directive.
  3. Self-Monitoring: Presuming that the child misunderstood your direction or the homework assignment, it is most important not to do the clarifying for them. Instead, ask guiding questions. “That’s not what I asked you to do. Think about it for a minute and see if you can remember.” or “When you don’t remember a direction, what could you to make sure you know what to do?” Doing so puts the child in the position of having to do the “heavy lifting” and develop the self-monitoring and self-help skills that they truly need.
  4. Self-Advocacy: In the off chance that you give a direction and the child does not follow through in the way that you intended (sarcasm), use this as an opportunity for learning and growth. “Hmmm. I see that you put your plate on the counter which is really helpful. What I asked you to do was place it in the dishwasher. It seems like you may not have understood my directions, what could you do in the future to make sure you understand me?” If the child truly can’t come up with an idea you might suggest that they ask what they were supposed to do again or think about what the situation and what action is appropriate to that situation.

by Ian Kelly, Principal Ben-Hem and Heather Smith, Principal Lilja

Making Sense of the ROSP

One of the advantages of having a standards-based report of student progress is that it takes some of the ambiguity out of understanding your child’s progress.  The ROSP is structured to provide families with a snapshot of the whole child. The report goes goes beyond academic standards and provides information on work habits, study skills, and social skills.

© Copyright 2011 CorbisCorporation

© Copyright 2011 CorbisCorporation

It is no secret that every parent wants their child to excel. It is this natural desire and drive that can muddy the waters when reading and interpreting a report like the ROSP. Our natural inclination is to look for ratings of 4 (exceeding grade level standards) throughout the report. The challenge in this mindset is that it does not account for the intended purpose of the ROSP and the natural developmental patterns of children. When reading the ROSP, it is important to remember that all of the standards on the report are end of year standards (things we would expect kids to know and be able to do by June). As such, a rating of 2 (progressing towards grade level standard) is perfectly normal at the January reporting period and a rating of 3 (meeting grade level standards) is perfectly normal by the June reporting period.

So how do we define performance levels?  The ROSP contains a range of proficiency levels:

          1 – Not progressing towards grade level standard

Students who receive a proficiency rating of 1 in an area are struggling to meet the standard and there may be a range of reasons why the child is not demonstrating progress in such an area.  Teachers in the NPS are committed to the academic progress of every child and there are a number of supports available to help children work towards proficiency.  If your child is not progressing towards the grade level standards in multiple areas, is not receiving support, or you do not understand why your child is not making progress towards the grade level standards, reach out to your child’s teacher and open a dialogue.

2 – Progressing towards grade level standard

Students who demonstrate a rating of 2 are progressing towards the grade level standard which means that they are making progress but have not yet met the standard. As students work towards achieving proficiency, teachers are there to provide support as a guide on the side helping children set, monitor and work towards achieving their goals.  When a child achieves a rating of a 2, It’s important to acknowledge that this is an area of growth not necessarily a deficiency.

3 – Meets grade level standard

Students meeting grade level standards demonstrated a proficient level of understanding of the standard.

4 – Exceeds grade level standard

Students who earn a rating of a 4 have exceeded the grade level standard consistently over time.

It is also important to note that not all of the standards will be assessed on the mid-year report. This reflects the pacing of curriculum in the Natick Public Schools. While there is a high degree of continuity across our classrooms, we expect our teachers to differentiate content to meet learners at their individual levels. As a result of this expectation, it is not uncommon for classrooms to reach different points in the curriculum by the January reporting period and for the standards reported to vary slightly (i.e. one second grade classroom has covered 2D geometry and another second grade class has not yet reached that point).

While you may be tempted to look primarily at your child’s ratings in academic areas such as English Language Arts, Mathematics, Social Studies and Science, careful consideration of a child’s habits of mind are critical to understanding a child’s growth as ratings in these areas can provide families with insights into how and why a child may/may not be demonstrating proficiency in an academic area. These skill sets are the foundations of learning and weaknesses in these areas often translate to academic challenges.  For example, a child who “rarely” takes academic risks and rarely displays a positive attitude towards school and learning may be struggling to achieve proficiency in specific areas of his or her academic skills. In these cases, it is important to talk with your child’s teacher and the child to come to an understanding of what can be done to turn things around.
In our next few posts we will discuss specific ideas to support families in establishing and developing solid work habits and study skills in their children.

by Ian Kelly, M.Ed. and Heather Smith, M.Ed.

School Wide Positive Behavior Supports

maslowA successful learning environment is predicated on the idea that students feel safe and comfortable in their classroom and school. This is a sensible conclusion when you think about it. If a child is worried about something then chances are she is not completely focused on her work.

Abraham Maslow captured this concept in 1943 in a work called “A Theory of Human Motivation.”  Maslow’s work set forth the idea that all human beings are driven by a set of hierarchical needs and that higher level needs cannot be attended to until lower level needs are met. The first two levels are physiological and safety. Learning falls into a set of higher level cognitive needs. This theory is why we ask kids who are struggling if they got a good night’s sleep or if they had breakfast. These basic physiological needs have a significant impact on their learning.

Beyond physiological needs is the need for safety. The child needs to know that they are physically and emotionally safe before they are able to attend to learning. Providing a safe and predictable environment for 600 students who come to learn with over 75 adult faculty members creates a dynamic challenge for a school.

To meet this challenge Ben-Hem faculty and staff have developed and implemented a system of School Wide Positive Behavior Supports (SWPBS).  The SWPBS approach to school culture is predicated on the idea that human behavior is learned and, therefore, needs to be taught. It is the proactive approach to teaching positive behavioral expectations that separates SWPBS from traditional behavior management techniques.

The Open Circle program is one that families hear a lot about during curriculum nights and in teacher newsletters. The Open Circle program is Ben-Hem’s primary curriculum resource for teaching students what it means to be a friend and a student. The inter and intrapersonal skills developed through Open Circle are critical to ensuring our students are safe and successful in school. When programs like Open Circle are not used the social curriculum becomes the “hidden curriculum.” Open Circle supports our teachers in transferring this “hidden curriculum” into a clear and explicit trajectory of teaching and learning that provides the foundation of a positive school culture and climate.

Teaching is only the first step in this process. Instruction is most effective when the content and expectations are consistent from classroom to classroom and year to year. Stability and predictability are part of making sure those basic needs that Maslow described are met. To ensure that behavioral expectations are consistent in all classrooms and settings, our teachers use a common set of guiding principles when developing classroom rules. Providing fundamental principles ensures continuity of expectations while providing for flexibility in adapting rules and expectations to specific environments.

The social and emotional skills of our students are critically important to their success. Teaching and supporting the development of these skills and abilities is a high priority for Ben-Hem and one that we know ensures high levels of learning for our students. School Wide Positive Behavior Supports is an effective model that we implement to ensure this learning throughout the day and year. Let us know if you have any questions about social and emotional learning or School Wide Positive Behavior Supports.

The Common Core State Standards

common-core1The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are here and we are hard at work ensuring that all of our curriculum, instruction, and assessments are aligned to meet the rigorous new standards. The CCCSS represent major shifts in the learning standards that guide our work.

The first shift focuses on ensuring that the curriculum we teach in schools targets depth of knowledge vs. breadth of coverage. For years professionals have struggled with delivering mandated standards that are a “mile wide and an inch deep.” CCSS presents a resolution to that problem.

The second shift represented in the CCSS is a focus on the thinking skills and cognitive processes that underly the acquisition of academic content. The ability to plan strategically, review and evaluate resources, and develop novel opinions are essential skills in the CCSS. The Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks and other state standards have focused primarily on articulating the “what” of different subject matter. CCSS goes beyond the “what” and focuses on the “how” of student learning.

The third major shift lies in the notion of College and Career Readiness. The CCSS aim to ensure that students leave high school with the skills and dispositions necessary for success in post-secondary and professional environments.