Sunday, February 25, 2024

10 Ideas for Primary ELA Stations

In my coaching work, suggestions typically arise for ideas on implementing various personalized strategies effectively at the primary level (PreK – 1). While choice, in my opinion, might not be the most developmentally appropriate option, I do see station rotation (or centers) as a viable option. Establishing engaging and educational station activities for primary-age students in the English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum is essential for fostering literacy skills, including reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Stations allow young learners to explore and practice these skills at their developmental level through purposeful play and hands-on activities. At the same time, the teacher can pull small groups for targeted instruction or support.

Recently, I was asked by some Kindergarten teachers at Howell Elementary School in Tennessee during one-on-one coaching sessions about ELA-specific stations that would be great for young learners.   The conversation provided the spark for this blog post. 

Here are several practical ideas that can be effective and enjoyable for primary students:

Sight Words Station: Little learners engage in tasks to recognize and practice high-frequency words. Implement interactive games like sight word bingo, memory match, and word fishing (using a small fishing rod with magnets to "catch" words written on paper fish).

Phonics and Word Families Station: Students learn to build phonemic awareness and understand word families. They can use sorting games where students group words by their beginning sounds or word family endings. Consider incorporating simple CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) word-building activities with letter tiles or magnets.

Technology Station: Here is a great way to integrate digital literacy and acquire data using adaptive tools when appropriate. Use tablets or computers with ed-tech tools focused on ELA skills, such as letter recognition, phonics games, or digital storytelling tools.

Alphabet Station: Students learn to recognize and practice letters and sounds. Activities can include magnetic letters, alphabet puzzles, and letter-matching games. They can work on identifying letters, matching uppercase to lowercase, and producing letter sounds.

Listening Station: Students learn to develop listening comprehension and focus. Try setting up a listening center with headphones and a variety of age-appropriate audiobooks. Include follow-up activities related to the stories, such as drawing a scene from the story or answering simple questions.

Writing and Drawing Station: Students actively practice writing skills and express creativity. Provide various writing materials like paper, notebooks, pencils, markers, and crayons. Include prompts or story starters, and encourage students to draw pictures related to their stories.

Reading Nook: This station encourages a love for reading while improving fluency. Teachers can create a cozy corner with a range of picture books, early reader books, and thematic books related to current classroom topics. Rotate books regularly to keep the selection fresh and engaging.

Drama and Role Play Station: Students work to enhance speaking skills and imagination. Set up a mini-stage area with costumes, props, and puppets. Students can retell familiar stories, perform improvised scenes, or use puppets to create narratives.

Poetry and Rhyme Station: Your learners work to enjoy the rhythm and rhyme of language. Offer poetry books, nursery rhymes, and songbooks. Include activities like rhyming matching games, building simple rhymes, or creating class poems.

Sensory Writing Station: Students practice letter formation and fine motor skills. Provide trays with sand, shaving cream, or salt for students to write letters and words with their fingers or small writing tools.

For each station, it's essential to provide clear instructions and rotate activities regularly to keep students engaged and challenge their learning. Additionally, adapting each station to meet primary students' diverse needs and learning preferences will ensure that all children can participate and benefit from these ELA station activities. Here are some tips to help you develop station rotation effectively:

  • Develop a template and share it on-screen with context
  • Integrate a timer
  • Use available data to group/regroup and target instruction
  • Integrate an adaptive learning tool
  • Keep rotations between 3-4
  • Use an exit ticket (2-3 scaffolded questions/problems) at the end of the block for accountability

Effective and engaging ELA station activities for primary students are crucial for developing literacy skills. Although choice may only sometimes be developmentally appropriate for learners in PreK to Grade 1, station rotation offers a structured yet flexible method of instruction. These stations encourage skills ranging from letter recognition to creative expression and fine motor skills, all tailored to young learners’ developmental levels. Providing clear instructions and regularly updating activities are vital to maintaining engagement and addressing the diverse needs of the students.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Unlocking the Spectrum of Learning: The Multi-Faceted Magic of Personalization

We live in exciting times as unprecedented access to knowledge, research, and effective strategies at our fingertips can assist educators in creating meaningful experiences for students that align with both needs and strengths. One thing is for certain: learning is not linear. While a one-size-fits-all approach either worked for us or we just managed to get by, our connected world has shined a light on shifts that can be made to maximize students' time in class. Herein lies the power of personalization. 

Now, let me clarify a few things. Personalization is all learners getting what they need, when and where they need it, to succeed. It’s not all students doing the same thing at the same time, the same way. It is also important to point out the following:

  1. You don’t need technology to personalize learning.
  2. Putting all kids on a device simultaneously and having them watch a video or work on an adaptive learning tool is not personalization.
  3. There is not one best or right way to personalize.

There are pathways that genuinely personalize learning for all students and there are uniform approaches that only focus on one aspect of high-agency practices. The latter is a common position of many vendors in the space. Herein lies why I outlined the three main points above. For personalization to fully flourish in ways that meet the needs of all, there should be a multi-faceted approach that strategically embeds voice, choice, path, pace, and place throughout lesson design and facilitation. This means looking at key practices such as Tier 1 instruction, pedagogy, assessment, feedback, differentiation, RTI, real co-teaching, and professional learning to see where there is an opportunity to grow.  


The above paragraph sets Quest Junior High School apart from many other, if not all, schools across the country and the world. It starts at the top with leadership. Principal Nicki Slaugh has engaged with her staff to create a shared vision and works tirelessly to provide support through feedback and professional learning. The consistent use of high-agency strategies and data has resulted in a myriad of ways to help address the needs of learners. In her words, there are no “cookie-cutter” ways to personalize. Keep this point in mind if and when you are looking to grow personalized practices in your district, school, or classroom. 

While competency-based approaches buoyed by standards-aligned rubrics in the form of proficiency scales are the gold standard for path and pace, you will also see so much more. This includes using tech and whiteboard spaces for voice during Tier 1 instruction, choice activities, playlists, flipped lessons, stations determined by data, one-on-one conferencing, and maximizing flexible spaces. However, one aspect that sticks out is a consistent focus to impart high levels of cognition and relevance in all questions, tasks, and assessments. This is a testament to the staff at Quest, who see the value in personalization and not just another thing added to their plates.  

Case in point. During a recent coaching visit, I had the opportunity to visit numerous classrooms with an emphasis on feedback for new teachers and growth in co-teaching practices, which has been a primary focus in year two of the work I have been facilitating. Before I highlight one teacher in particular, I must say that we saw exceptional personalized practices occurring throughout the school. This is yet another testament to the culture of learning that has been established. I was particularly impressed by first-year teacher Brylee Nelson’s English class. From my lens, you see clarity in the form of a standards-aligned learning target, a real-world application involving choice, high-level thinking in the form of a scaffolded rubric, and a closure task using technology that amplifies students' voices. While the students worked, Brylee was seen conducting individual conferences as a Tier 3 support.


Another standout for me was to see firsthand how much progress has been made with effective co-teaching strategies. Nicki and her teachers have worked so hard to grow in their area, and their accomplishments can serve as a model for other districts and schools. When you look at the image below, can you identify the four adults? It wasn't very easy for me at first. Data was used to establish the groups that were staffed by two teachers (math, SPED) and two teaching assistants. You would be hard-pressed to figure out their roles as they were all immersed in targeted support. MTSS, RTI, differentiation, and co-teaching are all established pathways to personalized learning when good data is available and leveraged effectively.   

Supporting Quest and Nicki these past two years has been an absolute honor. You can see a snapshot of all they have accomplished HERE. When I created Aspire Change EDU, the main goal I set forth for the company was to ensure that all of our practice areas and solutions were tailored and customized to meet the needs of those I would serve. What this translates into is that there is no one way to personalize. While Quest had the best competency-based learning at scale I have ever seen in practice, which they established independently, Nicki saw opportunities to grow in other areas. The rest is now history.

To effectively personalize, we need to embrace a multi-faceted approach. Be wary of any solution, program, or professional development that doesn’t address all aspects of student agency while making connections to established practices that are known to be effective. 

If you would like to learn more about how Aspire Change EDU can support your district, organization, or school or provide you with 1:1 coaching, feel free to reach out – AspireChangeEDU@gmail.com


Sunday, February 11, 2024

What School Should Be

I vividly remember the first World Book Encyclopedia set my parents bought for the house in the early 1980’s. It was a sight to behold as what seemed like an infinite amount of knowledge was alphabetically organized, just waiting to be consumed. Housed in the dining room for ease of access by all, the copper and cream books with gold trim were a staple resource for my brothers and me when we had to do any research for school work. I even found myself perusing through the set randomly, looking to glean more insight into things that interested me. Without the encyclopedia set, our world was not very big. Little did we know, however, that the second these were published, they became irrelevant as new editions were already in print to keep up with the pace of new knowledge.

The Internet was still over a decade away, and when I got my first taste in the mid-1990s, I didn’t know how society would change forever. Flash forward many years, and we now have instant access to what seems like endless sources of information, which is both a good and bad thing, depending on perspective. I am of the opinion that endless scrolling through TikTok and over-snapping on Snapchat don’t always yield the best results when it comes to leveraging connectivity to learn. I digress. The rise of artificial intelligence has now put us in a new frontier of knowledge acquisition. You can even claim that the world is in the palm of our hands.

While the Internet drove the encyclopedia as we knew it to irrelevance, emerging technologies are having the same exact impact on traditional schooling. Virtually any student today can access knowledge and information. It’s what they can do with it in a meaningful way that they crave. This was reinforced to me recently when I met with a group of high school students in New York. During our conversation, they stressed the need for relevant learning and a more significant purpose, something that isn’t always emphasized in the curriculum. The image below captures the essence of what school should be in the eyes of those we serve.



Now, I am not saying that knowledge and recall don’t have their place. They certainly do, especially at the lower elementary level. However, we need to ask ourselves what was gleaned of value from our experiences being “schooled” and then put ourselves in the shoes of our learners who have powerful computers in their pockets, access to AI, and can create elaborate content on a drop of a dime. Yes, they still need teachers, even more so than in the past, who can help them construct new knowledge, self-regulate, overcome challenges, and see connections to what is learned in a real-world context. What they need less of is content dissemination, where passive consumption and regurgitation of facts have limited value in a disruptive world.   

Change is hard. Without honesty and vulnerability, it becomes even more difficult. While present challenges still remain in the form of time and a focus on standardized test scores, we must look for opportunities to honor students' voices and help them develop the competencies to engage in work that matters. This means personalizing the curriculum in ways that connect to what matters. While the tasks depicted in the image above are certainly important, we can’t discount the importance of competencies that will allow learners to thrive now and well into the future. In Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms, I identified six of these, which you can see below.

As I reminisced about the bygone era of encyclopedias, the purpose was to chart our journey to the present, where the Internet and artificial intelligence have revolutionized access to knowledge. It’s time for a fundamental transformation in education from the passive intake of information to a system emphasizing relevance, purpose, and the practical application of knowledge. Conversations with students confirm the craving for education that aligns with real-world needs and enables meaningful contributions. The time is now to evolve beyond traditional roles, fostering competencies that empower students to proactively navigate and shape the future. It calls for personalized curricula that respect and amplify student voices, preparing them for a world where adaptability, creativity, and critical thinking are paramount. Are you in?

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Cultivating Leadership: Strategies for Building Capacity

In the ever-evolving landscape of education, the role of leadership is pivotal. The notion of educational leadership extends beyond administrative responsibilities; it embodies the vision, direction, and ethos of a learner-centric environment. Building capacity is not just an individual pursuit but a collective journey towards excellence. It is vital because it directly impacts the quality and effectiveness of teaching and learning environments.

Strong leadership fosters a culture of continuous improvement, innovation, and collaboration, which are essential for adapting to a disruptive world. Influential leaders guide and inspire their teams and play a crucial role in shaping educational policies and practices that meet diverse student needs. By investing in leadership development, educational institutions ensure they are equipped to overcome challenges, maximize student achievement, and prepare learners for success in an increasingly complex world. This investment in leadership is an investment in the future, as it empowers educators to create positive, lasting changes within their schools and communities.

Understanding the Role

Leadership is about action. It is not confined to principals or central office administrators; it includes anyone who takes on a leadership role within an educational setting. This includes teachers, department heads, and even students. Understanding that leadership can come from various levels within an educational system is crucial in fostering a culture of shared responsibility and empowerment.

"Leadership isn't telling people what to do. It’s taking people where they need to be by empowering them to want to be part of the solution."

Developing a Shared Vision

A shared vision is the cornerstone of effective leadership. It provides a clear direction and purpose, aligning the efforts of all stakeholders. Developing this vision involves inclusive dialogue, where the contributions of teachers, students, parents, and community members are valued. Shared visions are the ones that truly resonate and they are formed only when you pay close attention to others, understand their aspirations, and address their requirements. Exceptional leaders successfully lead their teams toward the future by engaging in the most fundamental form of research: observing and understanding human nature. A shared vision guides the institution and fosters a sense of belonging and commitment among its members.

Investing in Professional Learning

Building leadership capacity requires continuous learning. This can be achieved through formal training programs, workshops, job-embedded coaching and conferences. Equally important are informal learning opportunities like peer mentoring, collaborative projects, and reflective practices. Education leaders should be lifelong learners, constantly seeking to enhance their skills and knowledge. The overall goal, however, should be efficacy, where you can show the impact of investments made in professional learning.  

Encouraging Collaborative Leadership

Collaborative leadership is essential in the educational context. It involves distributing leadership responsibilities, encouraging teamwork, and fostering a culture of trust and respect. By valuing the input of all members, collaborative leadership empowers individuals, harnesses diverse perspectives, and promotes a more inclusive decision-making process.

Fostering a Culture of Innovation

Educational leaders should cultivate an environment where innovation and creativity are encouraged, something I elaborate on in great detail in Digital Leadership. This involves being open to new ideas, experimenting with different teaching methods, and embracing technological advancements. A culture of innovation is crucial for adapting to the changing needs of students and the wider community. True leaders recognize that their achievements are reliant on the collective success of their team, rather than building a group of followers or disciples. They are aware that victories in wars, elections, or football games are not the result of a single individual's efforts, but rather the outcome of collaborative teamwork.

Emphasizing Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is a critical component of effective leadership. Leaders in education must be able to understand and manage their emotions, as well as empathize with others. This competency is vital in building strong relationships, managing conflict, and creating a supportive learning environment. Leaders who prioritize emotional intelligence forge deeper connections, inspire greater trust, and create more resilient teams, turning empathy and understanding into a cornerstone of successful leadership.

Leading by Example

Effective leaders lead by example. They demonstrate the values, attitudes, and behaviors they wish to see in their institutions. This includes showing commitment, integrity, and a passion for education. Show everyone what it means to be a good leader by being a good follower. Set a positive example through your own actions and work ethic. Basically, don't ask others to do what you have not or are not willing to dio yourself. Leaders who embody these qualities inspire others and create a positive and productive learning environment. 

Building educational leadership capacity is a dynamic and continuous process. It requires a commitment to shared vision, professional growth, collaboration, innovation, emotional intelligence, and leading by example. By embracing these strategies, educational leaders can create environments that not only foster academic success but also nurture the development of future leaders. The journey of building leadership capacity is one of transformation and growth for the individual leader and the educational community they serve.

Interested in learning more about building leadership capacity? If so, check out the workshop and coaching options at Aspire Change EDU and let's set up a Zoom call - esheninger@gmail.com