Monday, December 28, 2009

December 2009: Annette Hilger, Making Breakfast Cereal a Part of a Healthy Tutoring Session


America Learns Strategy of the Month 

America Reads logo

Breakfast cereal.  It can be a part of a healthy breakfast.  Thanks to Annette Hilger, it can now be a part of a healthy tutoring session.

Annette Hilger Annette Hilger is a coach with IUPUI’s America Reads*America Counts program (a Federal Work-Study tutoring program for children in grades K-9). 

Annette, a freshman Pre-Physical Therapy/Exercise Science student at IUPUI, was recently looking for a better way to engage one of her students in the stories they read together.  She also wanted her student to think more deeply about stories’ events and characters.

So, she turned to breakfast cereal.  Seriously.  And what she did is seriously outstanding. 

Her supervisor told us that at the end of each tutoring session, Annette’s students give her a huge hug and tell her that they can’t wait until she comes again.  After you read her strategy, you’ll want to give her a hug, too. 

The Strategy

Breakfast Cereal, Reading Comprehension Style

Created by: Annette Hilger, America Reads*America Counts Programs at IUPUI (America Learns Network Federal Work/Study Member since 2007)
Topics: Reading Comprehension
Grade Levels: Second – Fifth
Adult Intermediate
Arrangements: One-on-One; Small Group; Large Group
Materials: - Empty cereal box or cracker box
- Construction paper OR this cut-out printed on construction paper
- Markers, pens and/or pencils
- Scissors
- Glue or tape

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Situation: I wanted to create an educational activity that didn’t seem too school-like, but would still engage my tutee in thinking meaningfully about a book he just read (from the story’s events, to its characters and setting).
Step 1: After reading a book together, tell your tutee that rather than simply talking about the book or writing up a report, he’s going to be creating a brand new kind of cereal based on the book he just read.
Step 2: Ask your tutee to think of a name for a new kind of cereal that relates to the book.

The cereal can relate to the entire book, or just to a particular character, group of characters, setting, or even to a particular event or to an emotion that your student felt while reading the book. Your creativity and your student's creativity are the limit.
Step 3: Ask your tutee to make a list of "ingredients." Include that list on a side panel, just as a regular box of cereal does.

If the cereal is about the entire book, your ingredients will be each character and a short description of each one.

If the cereal is about a particular character, your ingredients will be that character's traits (e.g., bravery, cowardice, thoughtfulness).

If the cereal is about a particular scene, the ingredients may be particular objects from that scene, as well as adjectives that describe it (e.g., fear, excitement).

If your student thinks of actual food-based ingredients that go well with the cereal, definitely include those as well.
Step 4: Ask your tutee to decorate the rest of the box by drawing pictures of specific scenes or descriptions in the book.  The back of the box or the second side panel should also include a summary of the book, scene or characters that the cereal is about.
Keep Going! Extension activities for this project from America Learns:
  • At the beginning of the activity, tell your student that he’ll be marketing his cereal to a specific group of characters in the story.  As he creates his cereal and designs his box, he’ll have to think about what would lead those characters to purchase his cereal.

  • Create a toy (or series of toys) that people who purchase the cereal will find inside.

  • Create multiple back covers with different games and activities related to the story (e.g., mazes, word hunts, riddles, suggestions for outdoor activities based on the story).

  • Take a picture of each side of the box and mail it to the book’s publisher and author, asking for feedback on your tutee’s creation.

  • If your cereal involved real ingredients, create the cereal to see if it “tastes like the story”.  (Before doing this, be sure to talk with a supervisor about any food allergies your student may have, and if you’re allowed to bring food items to your session.)  If the cereal doesn’t taste like the story, how can it be modified?  Does it need an extra dash of bravery?  A huge dose of steadfastness?  Much less sugar?

  • Make a duplicate box and send it to CEOs of various cereal companies.  Your tutee can write a letter asking the CEO to consider adding it to their product line.  You’ll also include a cover letter summarizing the purpose of this project and a request that they review the cereal and send a note back to your tutee on their suggestions.

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Monday, November 30, 2009

Special Edition: The Year's Most Meaningful "Cyber Monday" Special!

In honor of Cyber Monday, we're not just highlighting one strategy today.  We're highlighting 52!

You'll find each of these strategies in our award-winning book for families, family literacy programs, and pre-schools, Bonding While Learning.

While the book retails for $16.95, it's totally free to download and print through December 11th.

"I believe that your book's philosophy is inspiring and great for schools as well as for individual families.  Thank you for making such an outstanding book for our teachers and families."

- Carol Bovil
Director, Mann Family Early Childhood Center

"The reading preparation activities and games help parents stimulate their children’s mental development, giving them a distinct advantage when they begin school."

- Carol Henault
Executive Director, Reading is Fundamental of Southern California

"That book was actually the 1st one I read to get ideas about activities to do with the kids and I found it VERY helpful as I've never had any early childhood development training or anything like that.  Honestly, I plan to save it to use with my kids someday as I found the book very informative."

- AmeriCorps member with the
Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation

Download and start using Bonding While Learning at!

We'll be back with our regular Network Superstar/Strategy of the Month e-mail next month.  Get ready for an amazing strategy from a freshman at IUPUI who is engaging students in books they read by leading her students to create their own breakfast cereals.  You won't want to miss it!


Bonding While Learning

Sunday, October 25, 2009

October 2009: Megan Conners, THE Superlatives Superstar


America Learns Strategy of the Month



For the first time, we’re not only introducing our latest America Learns Network Superstar in writing, but also via video.

Below, you’ll have an opportunity to meet Megan Conners.  The 23 year old AmeriCorps NCCC alumnus just began serving as an adult literacy and ESL tutor through Literacy AmeriCorps Palm Beach County in Florida.

Audrey McDonough, the director of Megan’s AmeriCorps program, told us that Megan “drives one hour to [her service site] and back home each day to teach adults who are at the very basic levels of English speaking and reading ability.  Her students are primarily seasonal farm workers who come to school every day to improve their English and better their lives.”

Megan’s Strategy: Sentence Sequencing Cards
Megan became a Network Superstar by developing an engaging strategy to help her learners understand and practice the use of superlatives (words like biggest, smallest, taller).  She created the strategy as an alternative to the extremely confusing lesson offered in her learners’ text book. 

Though Megan has only been an adult literacy tutor for a month and a half, she’s already having a national impact.  A number of tutors and instructors we serve across the country have replicated her strategy over the past week!

Written text of the strategy is below. Check it out!

The Strategy

Sentence Sequencing Cards to Practice Superlatives & Other Skills

Created by: Megan Conners, Literacy AmeriCorps Palm Beach County (Literacy Coalition of Palm Beach County) (America Learns Network member since August 2009)
Topics: Grammar
English Language Learners
Grade Levels: Beginning Adult English Language Learners
Arrangements: One-on-One; Small Group; Large Group
Materials: - One pen, pencil or thin marker
- Index cards
- Optional: Examples of sentence sequencing cards I used (PDF | Word)

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Situation: My class had just finished a chapter about shopping that also included superlatives. I was having trouble explaining the inconsistent rules that would tell a learner when to say "the most" and when to put "-est" on the end of an adjective. Even after working on these things for a full week, I did not feel like the superlatives were sticking in their minds.

This activity helped my learners remember many superlatives. It also provided them with an opportunity to practice their listening and reading comprehension skills while having fun learning together!

Step 1: Make sure you have the same number of index cards as you have students.
Step 2: Create the cards.

On the lined side of the first index card, write a question containing a superlative that deals with the topic your students are working on (in this case, shopping). For example, “Is this the biggest television you have here?"

Take the second index card, and on the un-lined side write the answer to the question. For example, "I'm sorry, this is the biggest one we have here."

Now, flip the second index card over to the lined side and write a new question. You will write the answer to this question on the un-lined side of the third index card.

Continue this pattern until every index card has a question on one side and an answer to a different question on the other. Download the questions and answers I used (PDF | Word).

Important Notes:
1) The last index card's question should be answered on the un-lined side of the first index card you used.

2) To keep things simple for your learners, be sure that each answer card corresponds to one and on only one question card (and vice versa).

Step 3: Double-check your work.

Review you index cards to make sure the ordering of the cards will work when given to your class. Make sure there are no questions that have multiple answers!
Step 4: Lead the activity.

Give each of your students one index card and explain: “I’m going to give each of you one card [show a card]. The lined side of the card [point to the lined side] contains a question. The side of the card without lines [point to this side] has an answer to a question. I’m going to ask one of you to read your question. Then, all of you will turn over your card to see if your card contains the answer to that question. If you believe that you have the answer, please read your card out loud.”

Listen to your students and encourage them as they try to figure out when they should say their answers out loud. Continue until everyone has asked and answered a question.

Repeat the activity several times, each time giving the students different index cards.

Prepare to be amazed as they remember those questions and answers better than anything they saw in the text book! Use this strategy for superlatives or any other topic!

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

September 2009: Four September Superstars. Four Awesome Strategies.


America Learns Strategy of the Month

A core component of our work involves tracking and responding to the specific goals and challenges being tackled by the tutors, mentors, coaches and new teachers we serve.

This month, we want to share three of the top ten challenges that tend to top the list every September, along with some of the strategies that individuals we serve created to address those issues.

Here’s a rundown of what you’ll find below:

How can I get my students to not only set goals at the beginning of the school year, but to hold themselves accountable for accomplishing them?

Check out Quilt of Goals by Girls For A Change coach and Network Superstar Angela Krumm.

Girls For A Change

Help! My students won't focus during our sessions.

Check out It Feels Good to Write (A Daily Activity to Achieve Focus) by America Reads - Mississippi AmeriCorps member and Network Superstar Taneisha Carter.

Also, check out Two Simple Strategies to Help Students Stay Focused by City of Lakes AmeriCorps member and Network Superstar, Sarah Ihrcke.


When I'm working with a group of students, what’s something I can try to make sure everybody participates during discussions?

Check out Making Sure Everybody Has a Chance to Respond to Questions by ShoreCorps/PALS AmeriCorps member and Network Superstar, Jessica Christensen.


Challenge #1: How can I get my students to not only set goals at the beginning of the school year, but to hold themselves accountable for accomplishing them?

Quilt of Goals

Created by:

Angela Krumm – Coach, Girls For A Change
(America Learns Network member since Summer 2008)

Topic: Setting Goals
Grade Levels: 8th grade – Adult learners
Arrangements: Any
Materials: - Large butcher paper
- Markers
- Small squares of colorful paper, and glue/tape
- Optional: this goal setting template

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Situation: I strongly felt the girls were struggling to hold themselves and each other accountable for making changes in their lives. I heard them hint at goals without clearly articulating them or using action language to move forward on their goals. This activity allows them to state their goals and check in about them as a group.
Step 1: Invited the girls to spend some time thinking about and writing down their personal goals for the current school year.

I asked the girls to make sure that their goals were both "realistic" (e.g., Is that something you believe you can achieve? How committed are you to making those changes?) and "specific" (e.g., How many times per week will you practice that new skill? How many new words will you learn per day?").

America Learns Note:
Here's a goal-setting template that you can pass out to each girl (they'll use one sheet per goal). Let the girls know that they won't fill out the last section until the end ("Name and contact info of the person on my team who I’ll be checking in with and getting ideas and support from").

If you think it will be helpful, pair up the girls to give them time to share, discuss and refine their top one or two goals.
Step 2: Asked the girls to use images and words to illustrate one of their most important goals on a small piece of colorful paper.
Step 3: Each girl shared their goal with the group and asked the group to help them be accountable.

As they shared their goals, we asked each girl questions about how their goal is "realistic" and "specific", using questions such as the ones noted in Step 1, and drawing on information they should have included on the goal-setting template. These questions will likely help each girl form a more concrete idea of her goal as well.
Step 4: After each girl responded to the questions, she attached her goal goal to the butcher paper (making a "quilt of goals" for the team).

America Learns Note:
After each girl presents her goal, or after the entire quilt is made, consider giving the girls an opportunity return to the goal setting template so that they can refine their goals and their plans to accomplish them. If possible, give the girls time to work one-on-one or in small groups to brainstorm with one another on how they can accomplish their goals. During that time, you may have your own one-on-one or small group meetings to make sure that the steps the girls are planning to work on are specific and realistic.

Also consider pairing up the girls, and requiring each pair to check in with one another via phone or e-mail on their progress towards reaching their goals every week or every other week. The girls can schedule their check-in times during your session.
Step 5: Every other meeting, we engage in a "goal-check-in", where each girl reminds the team of her goals and checks in about progress.

If they are not making progress, the team asks the girl questions about what changes she might make in the coming week to work toward accomplishing the goal or revising the goal to be more realistic.

America Learns Note:
Consider giving the girls a few minutes following these check-ins to either journal or update their goal setting templates. If you paired up the girls for outside-session check-ins, give them a minute to schedule their next check-in time.

Challenge #2 (Part 1 of 2): Help! My students won’t focus during our sessions :-(.

It Feels Good to Write!
(Daily Creative Writing to Achieve Focus)

Created by: Taneisha Carter – AmeriCorps member, America Reads - Mississippi
(America Learns Network member since Summer 2004)
Topics: Behavior
Engagement & Motivation
Grade Levels: Third - Sixth
Arrangements: Any
Materials: - Construction paper and typing or printer paper
- Crayons or markers
- Pencils

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Situation: When I first started tutoring my students (most of whom have failed classes at least once), the students couldn't concentrate on the readings and lessons being taught because they were angry with someone or had a lot on their minds.

I decided to create a daily practice for them in which they write out whatever is on their minds in the form of a short story before we begin our tutoring sessions.

This practice gave my students an opportunity to vent and process their feelings. After they participate in the practice, they have a much easier time focusing on the skills and content we need to cover during our tutoring sessions.

Step 1: First, the student chose two sheets of colored construction paper, tucked some typing paper in the middle, and stapled it to make a scrap book.
Step 2: I let the students design the covers of their books to get their creative thought processes rolling.
Step 3: After the students designed their covers, they wrote their first short story about what was going on in their lives at the time. The short story helps them express feelings and clear their minds of issues that may be bothering them. If students prefer to draw how they're feeling on some days, I give them the opportunity to do so.

Let your students know that while you will be reading the stories to get a better understanding of how they're feeling and what's going on in their lives, you won't be grading or correcting their work. This is space for them to be creative and to turn what's going on in their own lives into stories. It's important that you read the stories in case something is going on in a student's life that needs to be addressed as soon as possible.
Step 4: Everyday, the students come in the room, draw their feelings, and write a short story about what they are feeling. We have such an easier time focusing during our tutoring time now!

If this strategy works for you, and if you’re an America Learns Network member, also check out The "Thought Lot" (Helping Students Deal with Daydreaming and Wandering Minds).

Challenge #2 (Part 2 of 2): Help! My students won’t focus during our sessions :-(.

Two Simple Strategies For Helping Students Stay Focused

Created by: Sarah Ihrcke -- AmeriCorps member, City of Lakes AmeriCorps
(America Learns Network member since 2004)
Topics: Behavior
Engagement & Motivation
Grade Levels: Third - Sixth
Arrangements: Any
Materials: - A squishy ball

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Situation: I tutor a couple students who struggle with staying seated and engaged during tutoring sessions. They need to be constantly reminded to sit down, stop making noises, stay focused, etc.
Strategy #1: When students have a problem sitting still, I let them work on the floor or work standing up.
Strategy #2: Also, I have a small squishy ball that students can play with while they work. For some reason, doing something with their hands helps some students stay engaged and focused.

Challenge #3: When I’m working with a group of students, what’s something I can try to make sure everybody participates during discussions?

Taking Steps to Make Sure Everybody
Has a Chance to Respond to Questions
(Preventing Shouting Out)

Created by: Jessica Christensen – AmeriCorps member, ShoreCorps/PALS 
(America Learns Network member since 2007)
Topics: Group Participation
Grade Levels: Preschool - Adult
Arrangements: Two or more students

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Situation: I found that if I asked a group of students a question without letting them know how I wanted them to respond, it created a problem.  Some students would just shout out their answers while others would raise their hands to be called on to answer. 

This type of situation created poor group participation, lots of distractions and caused many students to be overlooked.  Asking the group a question in this manner also made it hard to regain the group's attention and continue on with the discussion.
What to do: If you ask a question when talking to group, first tell your students how you would like them to respond.

Example 1:
- First tell the group: "Please raise your hand if you can tell me......."

- Then ask your question: "the difference between a reptile and an amphibian."

Example 2:
- First tell the group: "Now go ahead and just shout out the answers......."

- Then ask your question: "Can anyone tell me what animals we talked about last month?"

Where these Strategies Come From

All of the strategies we celebrate here have been contributed by tutors, mentors, coaches or new teachers who are using the America Learns Performance Measurement & Learning Network.   The educators and mentors we serve use the Network to to report their progress, reflect on their recent sessions, plan for their upcoming sessions, participate in an incredible learning community of individuals within their organizations and around the world, and receive weekly, personalized coaching and support to ensure that they are accomplishing their goals and the goals of the students or mentees they’re serving.  The America Learns Performance Measurement and Learning Network

Friday, June 26, 2009

Major Upgrades & New Team Members this Summer!

Dear Network Superstars visitors,

This summer, we’re taking a brief hiatus from publicly celebrating the amazing teachers, tutors, mentors and coaches we serve. Here’s why:

  • We’re adding a substantial number of first-of-its-kind features to our flagship service, the America Learns Performance Measurement & Learning Network.

  • We’re recruiting and training a number of new team members to better serve the growing number of organizations we have an opportunity to work with around the world.

In other words, we’re just really busy, and we’ve decided to focus on making sure that we continue to receive comments like the one below from our Network members.

“If you could not hear my squeals of joy a minute ago, then you must have had your windows shut and been wearing ear plugs! WOW!”

We just received that note from the Literacy Volunteers of Greater Syracuse. It was sent in response to a new feature on the Network that further reduces the amount of time spent tracking volunteers, AmeriCorps members, students and mentees.

We’ll be back in mid-September with amazing strategies from a number of the tutors, mentors and coaches we serve.

Gary Kosman
Founder & CEO

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

May 2009: Brandy Peterson & Lianna Wood, Recognition & Encouragement Superstars


 The May 2009 America Learns Global Strategy of the Month    

Girls For A Change 

  Check out this video about GFC!  

Brandy Peterson and Lianna Wood ROCK!

Brandy and Lianna are both coaches with Girls For A Change in Richmond, Virginia.  The organization empowers thousands of teen girls to create and lead social change across the U.S. and around the globe.  GFC volunteers and staff members have already earned Superstardom a number of times this year (see here and here). 

Girls For A Change Action Team in Richmond, Virginia
(Brandy and Lianna (sitting) with their Girl Action Team)

Why Brandy and Lianna are Superstars
Several weeks ago, Brandy and Lianna had a tough time refocusing their girls during their sessions.  The girls were rowdy and had lost their focus.  After doing a lot of work, Brandy and Lianna successfully motivated the girls to shift their focus and behavior.  As a result, the two coaches wanted to take some time to recognize the girls’ significant turnaround.

Now, “catching students while being good” is a tried and true strategy.  Volunteers are regularly instructed to celebrate students’ achievements to encourage more positive interactions or behaviors.  (As a basic example, a tutor might tell a student who has a history of not listening to instructions, “You did a great job listening to me while I explained the directions.  That made me feel appreciated and it will help make this assignment easier for you.”)

Brandy and Lianna took this practice to a completely new level last month.  As you’ll read below, it made quite an impact, leaving their girls speechless.

The Strategy

Fortune Cookies as “Recognition, Encouragement & Appreciation Cookies”

Created by: Brandy Peterson and Lianna Wood, volunteer coaches, Girls For A Change (America Learns Network member since Summer 2008)
Topics: Engagement & Motivation
Team Building
Grade Level Used With: Eighth
Arrangements: Any
Materials: - Regular cookies, fortune cookies or any team favorite snack
- Cards/paper and something to write with

- - - - - - - - - - - -


Our girls had a particularly successful meeting after a few weeks of rowdy behavior and little focus.

When the girls shifted their focus and behavior, we wanted to show them that we really appreciated that intentional shift.  We also wanted to express how glad we are to be their coaches.

(America Learns Note: Before implementing this strategy, please check in with your supervisor about any food policies your program has.)

Step 1:

One coach made cookies and the other made cards.

Initially, we considered making actual fortune cookies, but settled on chocolate chip cookies for mass-production purposes, figuring that a handful of cookies for each girl would be better than one.  I heard no complaints!   As long as the appreciation is genuine and sugar is involved, everyone's happy.

Step 2:

The cards included praising their attendance/dedication, emerging leadership skills, sense of humor, creativity, listening abilities, etc.

Each card began with, "We are fortunate to...,".  We highlighted things like frequent attendance, upbeat attitude, willingness to speak up, and leadership potential.

It's so important to make each fortune unique for each girl.  Immediately, our team compared notes.  When the girls found out that each card was personalized, they were speechless!  Well, speechless until they found that there might be leftover cookies :-).

Where this Strategy Came From

Girls For A ChangeLianna and Brandy contributed this strategy on the America Learns Network.  The strategy was then made available not only to Girls For A Change coaches, but also to the thousands of tutors, mentors, coaches and student teachers who are using the Network to report their progress, reflect on their recent sessions, and get the support they need to reach their goals. 

To date, more than 2,600 strategies have been contributed by members of the America Learns Network community.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Surprise! Girls For A Change Finds that the America Learns Network Helps to Maintain Program Quality and Integrity During Staff Transitions

Our Second Program Staff Member Superstar!

Meghan Arrigo with a Few GFC Girls
Meghan (in purple) with a few GFC girls

Girls For A Change

Meet Meghan Arrigo, the Western Regional Program Director of Girls For A Change. 

When Meghan found herself needing to take on the management of about 50 volunteers, she discovered a surprise bonus with the America Learns Network.

“The surprise was that America Learns is an amazing resource for staff when you have a staff person in transition -- so either when a staff person leaves or when you bring a new staff member on board."

Click here to listen to a quick discussion we had with Meghan about the ways she used the Network to maintain GFC’s highest program quality standards during the staff transition period.


The following is a brief summary of what you’re listening to.

How Meghan used the Network to help herself in her new volunteer management role:

  • Saved her time
  • Saved other resources
  • Helped her to maintain program quality and integrity
  • Helped her to preserve GFC’s high touch volunteer management and support model

How Meghan used the Network to benefit volunteers during the transition process:

  • Facilitated a seamless transition from the previous volunteer manager to herself
  • Didn’t have to ask volunteers to spend time updating her about progress to date

"Volunteers have been so pleased with the transition because I've been able to just jump in.  I haven't had to have them give me a lot of history of what's going on because I had the information at my fingertips."

You go, Meghan!  Keep up the awesome work.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

March 2009: Casey Cebulski, City of Lakes AmeriCorps Member and Activity Planning Superstar


March 2009 America Learns Strateg of the Month 
 AmeriCorps Minnesota

Minneapolis Public Schools Special School District 1

When we read Casey Cebulski’s Cave Monster strategy, we were blown away by the thought behind it.

Casey CebulskiCheck this Out.
Casey is a City of Lakes AmeriCorps member.  He works with third and fourth graders at Andersen Elementary in Minneapolis, MN.

Several weeks ago, one of Casey’s students suggested that they play Hangman.  Harmless, right?

Well, maybe not.  What does Hangman represent?  “Basically,” Casey writes, “Hangman is a game that by losing, you portray a person hanging from a noose. That's how criminals [used to be] disposed of, as well as a way to end one's life.”  Do children, especially children growing up around violence, need to reinforce their learning with games that communicate hanging?

Now, whether or not you or your students have ever associated Hangman with any form of violence really isn’t the point here. 

What we absolutely LOVE is that Casey models a process of asking, “What could be the unintended consequences of playing this game?”  It’s about really looking through various lenses (from students’ academic goals, to the types of activities that engage one’s students, to students’ neighborhood environments), to determine what’s best for one’s students.  Once Casey has that answer, he acts.

In this case, Casey acted by creating an awesome Hangman adaptation called Cave Monster.  We hope you’ll have fun playing the game with your own students; but, even more, we hope you’ll bring some of Casey’s lesson planning prowess to your own tutoring or mentoring practice.

Additional Notes About Casey Before You Read “Cave Monster”

Casey’s thoughts about his AmeriCorps experience: 
  • “The biggest lesson I learned while being in AmeriCorps thus far is to always keep an open mind.  Not every student is going to learn and grow the same (it goes without saying), so you constantly have to be aware of who you're trying to help and make sure you're there for them.”
Lisa Lambert’s thoughts on Casey (Lisa is Casey’s supervisor.):
  • “His creativity has been a huge asset in his work, as he has developed many unique ways to engage students in their work and help them understand basic math and reading concepts.  His cave monster strategy is just one example of the way Casey creates appropriate, unique games and hands-on methods to engage the students he works with. Casey's students love the cave monster game so much that Casey is often able to use it as an educational reward during his tutoring sessions that reinforces the work his students have been doing with him and in class.”
Check out Casey’s art!

The Strategy

Cave Monster

Created by: Casey Cebulski, City of Lakes AmeriCorps (Minneapolis Public Schools) (America Learns Network member since 2004)
Topic: Spelling
Grade Levels Used With: Third and Fourth
Arrangements: One-on-One; Small Group; Large Group
Materials: - Paper and pencil
- Spelling word list(s)
- Grade/reading level books
- List of sight words

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Situation: During a group reading session, a student suggested we play Hangman with the week's spelling words. Knowing the implications of what hangman represents, I felt that the game was too violent for the elementary school level. 

I came up with the scenario where the students are in a cave exploring. They have to guess letters to one of their weekly spelling words, or words they had trouble with while reading.  If they guessed wrong, they'd slowly wake up a monster living in a cave.  (After all, they ARE in the monster's home, bumping into them while they sleep. You know, it's rude.)  Should they get the full monster up, they'd be chased out of the cave and have to start over again.
Step 1: Draw an open cave. Nothing fancy, just get the overall outline.

Prepare a sheet of paper with the appropriate number of spaces drawn for the word or phrase to be guessed.

Step 2: Get your students ready by explaining that they are a team (or teams, depending on group size) exploring the cave.
Step 3: Ask your students to guess letters based on the number of spaces, but warn them that with every wrong letter guessed, a monster begins to wake up.

Every time a student guesses an incorrect letter, draw part of the monster’s body.  Start with the eyes, then the nose, ears, mouth, etc. (Get creative, try to have a design that would take quite a few guesses to finish.)

I also really expressed to the students the need to really look at which letters were already guessed, and to sound out the few letters that were already there.

Step 4: If the monster is completely drawn, the students are “chased” out of the cave.

The students then have to start over with that word or phrase.
Step 5: If the students get all the letters and finish the word, the monster goes back to bed. 

Start a new round of the game.
Step 6: The game was an immediate hit. 

Being an artist, it was easy for me to come up with various creatures to inhabit the cave.  I drew anything from SpongeBob (you don’t have to use a monster at all) to Darth Vader.  Don’t worry about your drawing skills, though.  The students will love the activity.

Ever since that day, my students ask ME to play the game.


Please share your own thoughts with us and with Casey by entering a comment below.

Program Staff Superstar! Amanda Resch on Motivating 100% of City Year Chicago Corps Members to Complete Regular Service Logs





Every so often, we’ll post interviews with and tips from program directors and program coordinators who are using the America Learns Performance Measurement & Learning Network.  

These Program Staff Superstars have either found innovative ways to use the Network or have hurdled significant challenges while implementing it.  Meet our first  Program Staff Superstar below!

Meet Amanda Resch

City Year Chicago


Amanda Resch is the Director School Partnerships at City Year Chicago.  She has managed the America Learns Network there since Fall ‘07. 

Amanda ReschWhat Makes Amanda a Superstar? 
If you coordinate a volunteer or an AmeriCorps program, you probably know that it can be challenging to motivate 100 (or even 15) tutors or mentors to complete weekly, biweekly or monthly reports on their service.  Sometimes, program staff members don’t have time to use the collected data, even when 100% of their tutors or mentors are completing their logs. 

For various reasons, AmeriCorps programs using America Learns Network usually see completion rates of their America Learns Network Service Logs in the 80s and 90s;  BUT, over the past year, City Year Chicago rose its Service Log completion rate from the 50s and 60s to 100%! 

How did Amanda Make this Happen?
Click here to hear an excerpt of a conversation we recently had with Amanda.  She’ll explain how she and her City Year Chicago colleagues worked together to accomplish their goal. 

If you don’t have time to listen to the interview, here’s a summary of Amanda’s five keys to success:

  1. Communicate to Corps Members that you invested in the Network for them.   Make sure they understand what the Network’s benefits are for them.

  2. Make the Network a part of your program’s culture.  Make sure all staff members are on board, and implement the Network at the beginning of the program year, incorporating it deeply into Corps Members’ pre-service training activities.

  3. Make sure Corps Members understand that to be successful, they need to take time to reflect on their service and to use the ideas generated during their reflection time to improve their tutoring practice. In order to best support the Corps Members, you need them to share their reflections and plans with you via their service logs.

  4. Show the Corps Members examples of the types of reflections you’re looking for them to share in their service logs.

  5. Use the Corps Member training resources that America Learns created for your program.

Stay tuned!  We’ll be announcing our March 2009 America Learns Network Superstar in a few hours.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Nameless No More!

The IlluminatorThanks so much to those of you who participated in the effort to name the superhero who now represents the America Learns Network Superstars.

The winning name by far was…

 The Illuminator

The name was originally suggested by long-time Network member Val Harris at Project READ.  Project READ is an adult literacy tutoring program based at Lewis & Clark Community College in Illinois.

Other names that were suggested ranged from Sir Learns-A-Lot and Mr. Thinkler, to Captain Creative and Lightning McLearn.  Read all of the suggested names.

Monday, February 16, 2009

February 2009: Sarah Belanger, Verbs & Nouns Superstar


America Learns Global Strategy of the Month | February 2009
 University of Michigan

Meet Sarah Belanger, and get ready to move!

Sarah is a junior at the University of Michigan.  She’s been tutoring for the past two years with the University’s America Reads Tutoring Corps as a work/study student.  

As she tried to help her students grasp the differences between verbs and nouns, she found that simply reviewing that “verbs are action words” and “nouns are people, places or things” wasn’t cutting it.

Sarah BelangerSarah decided to adapt the classic game of charades to help her students understand the differences between verbs and nouns.  As you’ll read below, it worked out brilliantly! 

Meg McKenzie, Sarah's supervisor, told us that “Sarah’s strategy is a great movement-based activity.   This multiple intelligence activity is great for bodily-kinesthetic learning styles, in which the child learns best through touching or moving and processes knowledge through bodily sensations.”

Check out Sarah’s strategy below and let us know what you think by leaving a comment at the bottom of the page!

The Strategy

Verb & Noun Charades
(Learning the Differences Between the Two)

Created by: Sarah Belanger, University of Michigan America Reads Tutoring Corps (America Learns Network member since 2004)
Topic: Grammar
Grade Levels: First - Third
Arrangements: One-on-One; Small Group
Materials: - Note cards (3” by 5” or larger)
- A hat or bag that will hold the cards

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Situation: My tutee was having a hard time with learning the difference between nouns and verbs.  Simply reviewing that verbs are action words and nouns are people, places or things wasn't cutting it.
Step 1: Create the cards you'll use for the activity.

Prior to the lesson, I wrote out one verb on each note card.  I also created note cards that had a single noun written on them. 

Place all of the note cards in a hat or bag so that the student can pick out one card at a time without looking.

Step 2: Play the game.

To begin, introduce the rules.  Explain that one student at a time will pick a card from the hat/bag. He’ll then act out the word without speaking or making any other sounds, and everybody else will try to guess the word.  You and other students can call out guesses as they come to mind.  (If "calling out guesses" gets out of hand, you may ask the students to raise their hands before calling out a name.  You may also give each student one chance to call out a word before students can make additional guesses.)

Getting Advanced:
- If you’d like to make the game more challenging, before your student acts out the word, you can ask him to first use the gesture of “raising his fingers” to indicate how many syllables the word contains. Two fingers means two syllables, three fingers means three syllables, etc.

- Your student can also use the following signs to communicate other details about the word before or while he is acting:

- “Sounds like" - Cup your hand to your ear or pull your earlobe. 

- "Short word" - Thumb and index finger close together. Commonly used for "a", "the", "of", "and". 

- "Shorter or longer version of the word you're guessing" - hands upright pushing together or pulling apart.

- After several rounds, you may find that it will be helpful to have a pre-determined time limit (such as four to five minutes) so that you don’t get stuck on a single word.

Step 3: After each round, ask the student who acted out the word to share whether the word is a verb or noun, and why that’s so.

If the student is incorrect, consider asking another student to act out the word in the same way the student at issue acted it out.  (If there aren't other students, you should act it out.)  This way, the student at issue will have an opportunity to "see the word" as well, not just act it out.  Ask if what's being acted out is an action or a person, place or thing.   (If you feel You can get quick definitions of nouns and verbs at America Learns' Eduspeak page.)

This activity helped my tutee to understand the difference between nouns and verbs and was fun at the same time!

Step 4: Reflection questions to ask students following the activity:

1) What was one of the differences between the charades that acted out verbs and the charades that acted out nouns?

2) How will you remember the difference between nouns and verbs?

3) Which words did we use today that you'd like to include in some of your writing?

For America Learns Network Members: If one or more of your students needs additional learning and review opportunities in this area, consider using one or more of these strategies from the National Strategy Database:

- Around the World with Nouns

- Introducing Nouns

- Verb-A-Thon!

How Else Can Tutors and Mentors Address this Issue?

Please share your own thoughts and experiences in the comments area below.