* Explode the Code

This is my personal review of an online reading program I’ve used successfully for several years: Explode the Code Online.  It’s a giant of a program, a digital version of a highly successful series of workbooks for teaching phonics published by EPS.  The online program mirrors the 8 workbooks.  Both workbooks and online program provide systematic and sequential instruction in phonics.  Here’s a screen shot of an online sample page.  ETC online

How it works:  The program will start with an automatic assessment of short vowel sounds, which also includes segmenting sounds, isolating beginning sounds, and spelling CVC words (Book 1).  However, teachers may choose whatever starting place is appropriate for the student.  Here is an overview of the content:

  • Book 1: short vowel sounds
  • Book 2: beginning and ending consonant blends
  • Book 3: long vowel sounds, consonant digraphs and trigraphs,
  • Book 4: compound words, word endings, syllable division, syllable types
  • Book 5: word families, 3-letter blends, qu, and sounds of -ed
  • Book 6: r-controlled vowels, diphthongs
  • Book 7: soft c and g, silent consonants
  • Book 8: suffixes and endings

What kids do: There are numerous responses required for each skill, including identifying correct letter-sound associations by dragging letters or typing; reading words; spelling;  matching; answering questions; practicing vocabulary; and reading sentences.  The activities themselves range from matching pictures and words to choosing one of two sentences to match a picture.  Student voices are used throughout, the graphics are animated (changing from black and white to color), and the all the individual sounds are carefully but naturally spoken, segmented, and then blended (see Cons below for one caveat on this).  After completing each lesson, students earn one of four icons for their scorecard: an airplane, a butterfly, a ladybug, or a bee.  Earning a certain number of icons (which can be adjusted by the teacher) rewards the student with the FUN button, a page of links to online games and websites.  Students may time themselves during each lesson and check their own student summaries when they log in (for the same information that teachers get below).

What teachers get:  Each student’s progress is  recorded in detail.  Serious detail.  You can generate reports that indicate how many minutes and seconds a student worked (and the actual time they were online), their accuracy rates, problem skills, comparison to California State standards, overall progress, number of lessons mastered, and number of assessments passed.  You name it, the program measures it.


  1. The abundant repetition and built-in programing ensure that students get sufficient practice before moving to a new skill
  2. It can be used to support a special needs student in the regular classroom to reinforce special education services
  3. The continual visual and auditory representation of segmenting and blending support phonological awareness
  4. This program provides a worksheet-free way to practice phonics skills
  5. Student progress is recorded in minute detail, which is excellent for EC kids as well as those in Response to Intervention
  6. A great program for English Language Learners (ELL)
  7. It is reasonably priced; seats can be swapped out if a student leaves or masters the content and all data is preserved
  8. It is easy to use for both teachers and students
  9. Students are motivated to earn the better icons (‘airplanes’ trump ‘bees’)


  1. Kids usually find the program boring, airplanes and bees aside.  The Fix: Plan on an external motivation system or get them to buy into the importance of this practice.
  2. If a kid “goofs” off and makes multiple errors, the program will continue to repeat the activities that were completed incorrectly.  The Fix: Explain what will happen if they goof off.
  3. The program does not correct for unaccented syllables.  The syllables “but” + “ton”  are pronounced correctly on their own, but the word doesn’t sound the same when combined into “button.”  The Fix:  Use this as a teaching opportunity for blending syllables.
  4. The program can be occasionally “glitchy” due to the enormous amounts of audio and graphic files.  The Fix: Buy a better computer.

My Rating: 4 1/2 stars out of 5


* Survival Tip #2: snake handling

After my serious post on classroom set up, here’s a second reality check.  Stuff happens.

I had just made my early arrival at school, entering my self-contained classroom from the outside door.  I was startled to discover two people standing just inside the interior door, staring down at the carpet.  The custodian and a resource teacher were in the wrong place.  They continued to stare at the floor.  I also stared at the floor and saw a snake.  It was in the wrong place.  The science lab was two doors down the hall.  I recalled hearing that a snake had escaped, but that was ages ago.

“This snake has to go,” I said firmly, knowing that my special population of students, kids with emotional and behavioral disabilities,  did not need a snake slithering around their feet.  The custodian said equally firmly, “I’m not touching that thing!”  The teacher backed away and said, “Neither am I!”

An unspoken battle of wills between the four of us, but wouldn’t you know?  A snake- handling tip popped into my mind from nowhere: You must grab a snake by its neck.  Another tip surfaced: You get one shot.

“OK,” I said.  “I’ll get it.”  I knew it wasn’t poisonous, right?  And it hadn’t moved a millimeter since I had walked up.  I edged closer, made a furious grab, and had that little baby by the neck.  That baby came to life instantly, writhing exactly like a snake, and I held it at arm’s length and started toward the hallway.

And wouldn’t you know?  The custodian and teacher took off!  I yelled, “Hey! I need you to open the science lab!”  By that time, I was at the lab door.  The snake grew increasingly impatient with the custodian, who was jangling his keys somewhere behind me.   I didn’t know snakes could sweat, but this one got quite moist and irritated.  I think that snake must have counted to 100  before the custodian opened the door and backed off.  “Hey!” I yelled.  “Lift up the lid!”  The snake was barely able to wait as the custodian s-l-o-w-l-y lifted the lid to a cage and ran out.  I swear I could see the relief on that snake’s face when it was safely back home.

After that, wouldn’t you know?  If any creature, wild or domesticated, was loose at that school, I was called to retrieve it. I figured I was safe from any more desperate wildlife rescues when we finally reached the last teacher workday of the year.  But wouldn’t you know?  I was cleaning up when I heard an ear-piercing scream from the 3rd grade teacher next door.  And we had cinder block walls between us.  My son, a teaching orphan, tagged along as I ran into the class.  The teacher was still shrieking, something about a snake in the spelling books.  Apparently this one had been brought for show-and-tell, got lost, and was presumed to have found its way home.  Now it was extremely grouchy.  I had those two snake-handling tips in my mind, but this snake was a moving target, which made it hard to see where his neck started.  I sent my son back to my room for a pillow case (yes, I always have a spare pillow case), just in case this snake got too sweaty.

The teacher and my son gave me plenty of distance.  So did the snake.  It was moving fast in the wrong direction.  I made a frantic grab and my hand wrapped around it, not as close to its neck as I would have preferred.  It had an amazingly long neck.  For a snake that hadn’t eaten in a month, it was quite agile and strong.  I think it had anger issues because it was doing its best to sink those teeth into my wrist.  “Give me the pillowcase!” I screamed.  This snake had to count to 150 before the pillowcase was close enough for me to snatch, and believe me, this snake got sweatier than the first one.  Then it jumped  around in that pillowcase and counted to 200 while I screamed for someone to open the back door.  And wouldn’t you know?  When I released it in the woods next to the playground, it didn’t even say thank you.

* Survival tip #4: Start bailing

After my serious post on classroom set up, here’s a reality check.  Stuff happens.

Example one: My small special ed space was organized around a whiteboard, not around my teaching style or the needs of my students.  I didn’t get to pick where that whiteboard landed, but there it was.  I placed my primary group table in front of the board so at least we could easily write on it.  Then water started dripping out of the ceiling and onto my head.  It was not raining outside.  Of course, I looked up and got one in the eye.  The kids all backed up, we pushed the table farther away from the whiteboard, and I positioned a recycling bin to catch the drops.  Maintenance was called and they drifted in during a lesson.  I must say that I love the maintenance folks.  They are always smiling, laid back, move slowly and easily, have interesting gadgets on their belts, and create a sense of awe among my students.  Of course it was OK for them to check out the leak while we worked.  I photographed the guy who partially disappeared into the ceiling, knowing that I had a terrific writing prompt in the making.  His pal laughed, leaning against the classroom door like the Marlborough Man.  After the guy climbed out of the ceiling and gently pushed the tile back in place, he smiled and said, “It’s a valve problem.  I fixed it.”  Then he stuck a round blue dot by the damp tile.  We were all sad to see the crew leave, but they promised to return if we had any other problems.  I wondered why water was running through the ceiling but I hated to pester such nice folks.

The next day, the drips had escalated into a rapid staccato. We pushed the table farther back because the water was now bouncing out of the bin. That left about five feet of usable floor space, which seriously distracted anyone at the listening center or computer stations.  Maintenance sauntered in again, reassuring nods and smiles, this time to a new audience who were equally thrilled to observe.  The ladder went up and the guy disappeared.  His partner casually passed him some shiny tools as we all watched in awe.  This was a new development, so I took more photos, thinking “sequence of events” writing prompt. Sadly, they finished quickly but took the time to ask the kids if they were being good students.  Definitely.  “It’s all fixed, ma’am.  Just a valve problem.  But don’t hesitate to call us if it drips again.”  I almost said, “Um, that was more than a drip,” but they were so pleasant and sweet.

The next day, the recycling bin stayed dry.  It stayed dry for almost a week.  Lulled into a false sense of security, we pushed the table back to the whiteboard.  I forget what we were doing when about a gallon of nasty brown water gushed out of the ceiling all over my head.  I jumped up and yelled, “Yuck!”  The kids obediently pulled the table away from the whiteboard and I called for maintenance.  Those dear folks came quickly but their aura of benevolence was lost on me.  My jacket was stained brown and I had crud in my wet hair. And I had swallowed a drop of that nasty water.  I demanded to know the source of the water in case I needed a typhoid shot or something.  The maintenance guys politely explained that there was a system of water pipes running above us, supplying heat and air conditioning.  I was horrified, sure that the entire lot would spill out of the ceiling and land on my head.  “No ma’am, it’s just the valve,” they said with confidence.   As much as I do love the maintenance folks, I was struggling to feel the love.

I had another week without a drip, so the table was once again pushed close to the board.  When I got to school one morning, all my materials, carefully arranged on the table for that day’s instruction, were soaked by nasty brown water. Yuck!  Maintenance came again.  The love was gone. This time, they concluded that I needed a new valve and it might take a while.  I explained that we couldn’t leave the table pushed out because we lost valuable floor space.  “Just put a tarp over the table to be sure,” one suggested. The other kindly added, “Or a shower curtain.”  I complied.  The plastic was usually wet, so the table remained in its awkward position until the valve was replaced.  And then the temperature in my room dropped permanently to 62 degrees, so I called maintenance.  Those sweet folks who fixed the valve.

* The lay of the land

Each classroom’s topography is shaped first by the architecture of the school, and then, more importantly, by the teacher and kids.  As school starts or even midway through the year, it’s helpful to analyze how the space is being used and whether it best matches what you want to happen in your room.

Be aware of these more obvious glitches: blind spots where kids can move out of the teacher’s sight; “highways” or broad open spaces that traverse the room and tend to become clogged with traffic; crunched up spaces where kids have to push their way into a group or move someone else in order to reach materials; and just poor furniture placement, where there’s no more than a foot of free space anywhere.  I’ve seen all of these and helped create some myself.

A teacher can forge his or her own way in setting up a classroom, or start by looking in other classes for ideas.  Either way, visualization should precede all classroom set up.  Picture every part of the school day, from student arrival to dismissal. Imagine where students will move to get needed supplies, to line up, to become part of a large group, to work in small groups, and to work individually. That visualization alone will help you avoid placing a pencil sharpener next to a quiet space.  Or a reading center too close to a bathroom door.

Then decide how you will match the space to your teaching style and the needs of the students.  If you don’t know what your teaching style is, definitely wander through some other rooms and copy what feels good to you.  Fortunately, none of your furniture is bolted to the floor (I hope) so you can change it as needed.  In fact, it can be a plus to have a plan that allows easy rearrangement if the activities warrant.  For example, you may want to move tables or desks to the “edges” to create a center space for a dramatic production.

The placement and distribution of materials has caused the downfall of many well-intended plans.  I’ve watched kids run like crazy to get the “best” clipboard, distract the class by handing out materials to “best” friends first, push kids to get to the “best” drawer of paper, and snatch the “best” pencils from another table’s supply caddy.  These things happened while the teacher thought everyone was listening to her directions. Plan a materials system and train your kiddos in its use right from the start.  Use a timer to keep things moving along but avoid creating a sense of agitation.

Any special needs of students will quickly become apparent, so either you adjust your space or live in misery.  If you have “speeders” in your class, put up road blocks (like a single desk) or make pathways that twist and turn.  If you have learners who are easily distracted, work with them to create a quieter space that doesn’t feel like solitary confinement.  Sturdy file folders with some support along the bottom edge (dried hot glue or duct tape?) can create an instant shelter for kids who need extra private space.  It’s a good idea to discuss these modifications with the whole group, so kids can provide input and reduce any stigma associated with “special” places.  Some kids may need a space to call their own.  If you are going to group kids at tables but vary the groupings throughout the year (a great idea), consider letting each child personalize their chair.  If you can get or sew plain chair sacks (those packs that slip over the back of the seat and hold “stuff”), kids could decorate their sack to make them unique.  On the other hand, you could designate a wall/partition area for each student to make theirs.  You could even create personalized student spaces digitally through Wikispaces, for instance.

Classroom space is almost an organism in its own right, shifting and accommodating and supporting.  Visualization and thoughtfulness will keep it from becoming a nasty virus. Oh yes, be sure to disinfect ALL the time.

* Next Encounters of the Best Kind

Forming relationships with your students is a factor in starting off the school year right, as well as staying on course. Even if you have had a bumpy start, it is possible to repair and build.  I think it’s important to be yourself, to be proactive in relationship building, and to be observant.

Be yourself.

You are unique and that’s a gift.  Maybe you value your unique self or maybe you are trying to squish yourself into some Super Teacher mold.  Beginning teachers can have the most difficulty in this area, but it’s a challenge for us all.  We see the “best” teachers and want to be like them. Comparison is SO painful because we usually don’t measure up in our own minds.  It’s a super idea to borrow some things from other teachers, but you can’t paste their personality and style over yours.  A friend recently shared some Pinterest classroom decorations with me and I was blown away.  I have no eye for that (and in special education, try to lessen distractions anyway) but my hallway bulletin boards always look “off.”  And I don’t have what I call a “recess voice,” the ability to boom over any sounds in the classroom.  When I have tried out my “recess voice,” I end up coughing and croaking.  I am not young, fashionable, and likely to be adored for my beauty.  I have watched sassy young teachers show up and all eyes are watching.  Enjoy who you are and be willing to disclose some personal traits with your students.

Be proactive in relationship building.

Get to know your students before school starts.  You can jump-start relationships with kids by meeting their parents.  OK, this is a tricky one, although many districts now expect teachers to connect with families informally before an official event.  Your initial contact may be that Back to School night.  But if you have a class list before then, begin calling, emailing, and/or visiting.  Seriously, this is a big deal.  Not every parent may welcome you, and not every phone may be connected, but the kids will be thrilled that you took the time to find them.  You will better understand your students when you see their home environment.  Do watch yourself for assumptions and prejudices as you travel through a variety of neighborhoods.  Make yourself accessible.  Speaking from personal experience, it’s a lot of work.  But those extra afternoon and evening meetings will pay off.

Be observant.

Simply put, keep your eyes peeled.  You know by now that I cannot write anything too simply, though, so here’s the elaboration.  Watch student behavior.  Focus carefully so you can detect triggers in their environment.  What catches their interest?  What makes them laugh?  What makes them frustrated?  How do they react to interruptions, assignments, free choice, lining up, the racket of the cafeteria?  Once you know their strengths and weaknesses, you will be able to shape that environment and guide them into more responsible choices.  And I have saved the most important observation for last:  watch yourself.  Your behavior impacts that of your students.  I usually keep a clipboard in my hand or nearby so I can record my behavior.  What is my ratio of positive to corrective statements?  How often do I smile?  Do I speak to all the kids or only those with their hands waving like flags?  Keep track of yourself, especially after a rough day.  A delightful benefit of this practice is that it causes students to become more watchful of you and themselves.  “What you are writing about?” becomes a prompt for all of you to take a closer look at how you are behaving.  And that’s a good thing.

Footnote: I consider myself to have shaky social skills, but my relationships with students and parents have been exceptionally positive.  So how has that happened?  God’s grace, first and foremost.  And he provided that grace long before I even believed in him, so I trust that his love for us all provides grace, no matter what we believe.

* First Encounters of the Best Kind

OK, the first day of school is fast approaching for my locale, so here are some thoughts on how to flourish, even if you’ve already started the school year.  Successful behavior management is the door to all those creative lessons and successful learning experiences.  The key to that door is you: how you communicate heart and authority, how you form relationships, and how quickly you help students become a community.

This post focuses on communicating heart and authority.

I’m not trying to create a warm fuzzy moment, but you must have something inside that goes beyond thinking only about yourself.  Yeah, yeah, none of us would go into teaching if we were only thinking about salaries.  And I sincerely believe that 99.9% of teachers want the best for their kids.  But does that trump your biases?  Does that override your own need to be successful and admired?  Each kid who comes through that door is a jewel, a treasure, and is placed in your hands for safe keeping.  How will you handle those treasures?  How valuable will that kid be who doesn’t look like you or act like you want?  Students (and teachers) form impressions in the blink of an eye:  “That teacher is scared.”  “That teacher’s scared of black kids.”  “That teacher scares me!”  “That teacher doesn’t want to be here.”  So examine your heart and lay down the wrong expectations.  Let selfless love trump all.

At the risk of sounding schizophrenic, you must also have something inside you that communicates your authority.  Teacher training institutions and researchers have wrestled with this almost intangible quality for ages.  I assume most of us have a built-in authority meter.  We can tell who expects to be followed, who expects attention, who expects obedience.  I’m not suggesting you become a benevolent dictator, for you must also follow the lead of your kids.  Yet you must communicate authority so that a community can flourish under your leadership.  I believe the most effective classroom is a democracy with a strong leader.  This means you must also lay down fear of failing, fear of experimenting, fear that the kids will become savages if you turn your back (maybe we should never have read Golding’s Lord of the Flies).  Put simply, kids are trying to figure out who is in charge.  When they know you are, they can relax and grow.

One more point, taught to me by my husband over 30 years ago:  Never evaluate your school day based upon how students behaved.  Instead, evaluate how you responded.  You can only control your responses, not those of others.

* Third POINT

Ah, a flow chart seemed like an excellent idea at the time.  And I think it would be effective if sorting out a student’s writing difficulties were as simple as following a recipe.  Here’s a sample of how my remediation for this particular student might look (taking into account my own approach to problem-solving, which is both linear and whimsical):flow chart

So scrap the flow chart idea on this blog.

Here’s what really happened. I decided to tackle four major issues at once and add components of other weaknesses as they best fit [refer to Write Away post]. First, we worked on graphomotor/visual perceptual problems. My eager student loved the mechanical pencils (and I gave her time to explore the intricacies of lead with me). Since the poor kid’s hand was no longer aching from writing, her classroom teacher was all for it. (Note: She had zero keyboarding skills and there was no way to add that to her life at present, although I recommended it as a summer opportunity).  I spent a little time each session teaching my willing writer to form the most problematic letters correctly. This was a student who processed information quickly and tuned out at a similar rate, so she hadn’t seen exactly how her kindergarten teacher formed each letter. The end result was that all her letters were formed from the bottom up, a feat I openly admired. I let her teach me how to make a few of those and I introduced her to a couple of new friends: the margin and the line.  After dictation of words that required use of the problematic letters, she had better habits (and I saw some glaring weaknesses in basic phonics).

The second issue we addressed was spelling.  After taking an inventory of required words for her grade level, I added those words, 5-8 at a time at first, to my account on Spelling City, where she could play cool games using her words. Once she started making some progress in this area, I let her practice through online games and left this issue until we could address phonics skills.

The third difficulty we addressed was her use of simple, repetitive sentences with minimal detail.   This was a kid who could talk your ears off with complex ideas and details, so I knew we were good to go.  I taught her “old fashioned” grammar, with each part of speech color-coded (based on Jane Fell Greene’s Language! program).  She was able to “write” using colored foam squares, with the goal of making her sentences more colorful and complex.  It’s a great strategy for writing because no pencil (or keyboard) is required! She learned the parts of speech quickly; I kept visual cues available to her as a reference and we played multiple bingo games and filled in cloze sentences related to her interests, adding new parts of speech every session.  The next step was to edit other students’ work for these features, using rubrics from Writing A-Z, and from there, to write her own sentences and edit those.  Eventually she dictated a 200+ word “how to” paper (using dictation because our focus was complexity, not spelling or handwriting).  You may have noticed that I added the use of rubrics and checklists into this phase of instruction.  This had been another area of weakness for her, so regular practice in editing other kids’ work was less threatening.  Who knows?  She may become an editor herself with that keen eye of hers.

The fourth area of remediation was complex (hence the flow chart burn out): phonological awareness, phonetic analysis, and syllable rules.  Her phonological skills were super, so we started up the ladders of phonics and syllabication.  She did not know short or long vowel sounds, which are near the bottom rungs for phonics instruction.  I linked syllable types to her phonics instruction, so she now identifies all six syllable types and only needs vowel diphthongs to top off her phonics skills.  I suspect your eyes are glazing over, as I know my husband’s would be, so this is a good stopping place.  I’ll save the details of this fourth area for later.  You’re welcome.

* Survival Tip #3: Never make ice sculptures with balloons

This is a serious post.  Never do this.  Ever.  The idea seemed terrific at first.  I had seen a beautiful ice sculpture at a wedding reception and thought, “My kids would love to work with ice!”  And I had a perfect tie-in with reading: each student could create a  character from the book they were reading.  I wasn’t going to give them a chainsaw, obviously, so I needed a way for them to make ice shapes larger than cubes.  Then it came to me!  Balloons!  Like an ice snowman, a small balloon could freeze into the shape for a head, a medium one for the trunk, and long ones for arms.  My assistant had some doubts, but she saw the moving train and jumped on board. My next inspiration for this wonderfully creative project was the addition of color.  Who wanted a transparent book character when they could make a red or blue one?  Even as we started the process, the project began to derail.  First, there was the challenge of herding half a dozen frenzied kids with balloons and a hose.  For some reason, the project deteriorated into water balloons tosses for a period of time.  And once we all got serious about this enterprise, adding food coloring to the balloons led to a serious collision.  A collision between tiny balloon openings that squirted water and food coloring that also squirted and stained everyone’s faces, hands, and clothes.  I reassured the kids that all they needed was a bath for their skin color to return to normal, but we all looked tattooed for several days.  Still, it was going to be worth it, right?  Even as we worked away on math and writing with purplish fingers, our potential sculptures were firming up in the giant cafeteria freezer.  Back on track.

The exciting day finally arrived and my assistant returned to the room with our bin of balloons.  She shook her head as I snatched the balloons eagerly.  Each student had carefully written their names on the balloons, so it was easy to distribute them.  I do regret that we tried to complete this project indoors, even though students had trays as a work surface.  We all quickly noticed what my assistant had already detected: the ice was not completely frozen.  I was in a state of denial.  Three days in that freezer?  The wateriness in the balloons must surely be superficial.  I would have frozen solid in that freezer after three days.  With shouts of joy, the kids attempted to peel off the balloons so they could “melt” the body parts together.  It would take a physics instructor to explain what had happened to the balloons’ texture in that freezer; they were suddenly as thick and sturdy as leather.  No one could free their “ice.”  I grabbed a paper clip and made a deadly point.  The kids crowded around to have their balloons punctured.  As the clip pierced each balloon, a fierce spray of colored water burst forth from those tiny holes.  Who could have imagined?   Cold read and blue spray splattered over me, over every kid, over the room….  (In all fairness, I couldn’t puncture some balloons and not the others.  Besides, I was still convinced that they must be frozen!)  My kids all ran after me obediently, spraying wildly, as I raced outside.  The train derailed right there.  A few lumps of ice amidst soggy, leathery balloons and a crowd of brightly colored, laughing students.  My assistant was not amused.  I was somewhere in between.

* Reflections #1

As my first week online draws to a close, it’s interesting to reflect on my new blogging adventure.  This is yet another (huge) niche of which I had little previous awareness.  I’m sure that’s happened to you.  Travel to an unfamiliar city, watch a new sport, walk through a fall festival, and there’s a whole other universe of interests and activities.   I’ve been able to stroll through some new streets this week, reading about lives across the ocean and in my own state.  I’m impressed with the candor of bloggers and refreshed by the novelty of new voices and new perspectives.  As I mentioned to someone, I also felt like I gave up bits of my soul in the process of registering for one upgrade or tool after another.  I hope my phone number and image are not splashed all over the web right now.  I want to be of use to others as they teach, but just as in the “real world” of teaching, relationships are at the core of it all.  Without a genuine love for students and a passion for teaching, the classroom is empty and lifeless.  Thanks for joining me!