Category Archives: Heather Cato

Rethinking: Real World Learning


I can’t say that I’ve ever posted an assignment to readers of my blog before, but I do promise this is not an exercise in futility. It will be worth your time.

After reading this article:

These Are the 30 People Under 30 Changing the World

Ask yourself:

  • What are you doing in your classroom with teenagers that is really pretty trivial in the scheme of life?
  • Is dissecting Silas Mairner for the 83rd time really necessary when kids in your classroom are quite literally curing cancer & making millions in real life?
  • How might you bring real life into your classroom and make learning relevant for kids?

I know when most educators say, “I’m trying to prepare these kids for the real world,” they are referring to the “real world” as the time when students have graduated high school or college and are living on their own, but let’s be real with ourselves. The world that our learners are currently living in is the real world. Why do they have to wait until they are 18 years old, or older, before what they are learning in school becomes relevant?

Personally, I was blown away to think about all the things that young people are currently doing to change the world in which they live, and I immediately began to think about how we could be doing school differently to support the ingenuity and innovation of our learners. Hopefully you will take a minute to think about that too.


Photo credit: Werner Kunz / / CC BY-NC-SA

Stop Preparing Kids for College

I’d kindly like to request that if you are currently preparing kids for college you stop. STOP NOW! 

campus-arielFrom the time I was born I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I would be attending Texas Tech University for college. There were no discussion of other options, no thoughts of possibly going somewhere else. I simply knew that I would call the sprawling acreage in the middle of West Texas my home for the four years after high school. I was so certain of this decision that in sixth grade I insisted my parents have a  conference with my teacher when she refused to allow me to do my college research project on Texas Tech. She wanted me to, “broaden my horizons.” I told her you could actually see the horizon in Lubbock and it didn’t need broadening.


Of course, my senior year I proudly accepted an offer to become a Red Raider!

For me, the problem wasn’t about going to college. The problem was about what to do once I got there. I vividly remember being more than shocked that I would have to pick a major and degree plan during freshman orientation. I was just beginning to orient myself  to the idea of being five hours from my family that the thought of deciding what I was going to do FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE hadn’t even crossed my mind! It may sound ridiculous but I honestly had no clue I was going to have to make so many decisions so soon in my college career.

Looking back on my experience, and the experience of others, I’m wondering if “preparing kids for college” is really enough. When we perpetually talk about college, paying little regard to what happens before, during, or after college, are we really stopping short? There is an entire world outside of school life. As educators, we must equip our learners to be successful in a vast array of environments – both now and in their future. Might college be one of paths our learners take, yes – absolutely YES! But we can not continue to send a message that college is the end of the road when in reality it is just one pit stop on the journey.

I know my story isn’t unique. We know that, “as many as one in three first-year students doesn’t make it back for sophomore year,” (US News). Maybe we should exert our energy helping prepare kids for life and in doing so they in turn would be even more capable of being successful in college.

Needless to say, I ended up picking the major and degree plan with the shortest registration line, but that’s a story for another day.

The 21st Century Sandlot

This has to be one of my all time favorite movies. If you haven’t seen it, well you should question your cultural literacy!

smore2What does this have anything to do with my tech tip you ask? Well, aside from the name (Smore), not much. While browsing the interwebs the other day I stumbled upon an awesome newsletter that my sweet teacher friends at Cannon Elementary School sent out to their families (seen here: Immediately I’m struck by the bright colors and awesome pictures of their learners engaged and excited about learning. I also loved their concise way they shared important information with their families. I don’t know about you, but I have little attention span for a lengthy email where you have to labor over every word just to decipher the point of the entire email. For me, the Smore flyer was awesome. I was able to get a brief glimpse into their classroom and if I were a parent I would know how to help my learner at home. — LOVE IT!!  And just in case you think it might be hard to use, it is not – I tried it! I literally spent ten minutes making an awesome flyer that I can now easily share with anyone!

Let me put it this way,
classroom newsletters will never be the same!


Go ahead – try it!
Then, let me know how you used it in your classroom!

OMG! Do You Think You Have Enough Books?

photo-1Last August, as I started in my new role of instructional coach for my district, people often said that I would go through a grieving process as I left behind what I once knew to embrace the unknown. Throughout the year, many have asked if I have missed the classroom, and of course, to some degree the answer is always yes, but there is one specific thing that I miss the most… MY BOOKS!

Walk into my room and more likely you would have asked me, “Jeez, Heather, do you think you have enough books?” Of course, my answer was always, “Uh, NO! How would that ever be possible?” No doubt, the best part about my classroom was my extensive library. If I spent a day and counted, I’d probably total close to 1,500 or more books, all cramped on shelves, waiting to spring into the hands of an unsuspecting reader.

Kids need easy access to books, just like they need easy access to their cell phones. The library can be too intimidating; the book stores are too far away, and often the shelves in their homes are void of books. As the teacher, if I wanted to send the message that books are important, there is no better way than to fill my room with books – good books, colorful books, books that students want to read.

Where I Find Books
* scooped up from a retiring teacher (Why won’t more teachers take early retirement?)
* freebies at conferences (Yes, I lurk in the corners of exhibit halls, executing a flawless freeloader innocence. Note to self: ask Amy to write about her stealing from a vendor experience.)
* purchased at the Scholastic Book Warehouse clearance event (Watch the calendar and pay attention to the Scholastic website)
* given to me by a students – (Please, no more Starbuck’s giftcards and scented candles… I NEED BOOKS!)
* Half Price Books (If near a warehouse, the free give-a-way for teachers is worth it. Otherwise watch for coupons. I just used a $15 off of $50 purchase that meant 21 new books.)

Why I’ll Never Have Enough Books
It’s more effective to walk over to the shelf and hand a student a book than it is to tell her to go to the library or to the bookstore and get it herself. Ever had this happen: a friend tells you about a book, and you think “Oh, I want to read that.” Unless you write it down or make a stop at the bookstore on the way home, you’re not likely to get that title any time soon. Magnify that by 20, and you’ve got what happens with a student. Most often you have to put the book in the child’s hand. Is she guaranteed to read it? No, but I increase the chances exponentially when I grab a book, chat about it, and hand it to a student. And with some students I place one book and another and another, until the student finds the one she wants to read. That’s why my shelves scream with diversity.

In my classroom, I arranged my bookshelves by genre because students may not know what they like to read, but they know what they like. A girl may not know she likes Sarah Dessen novels, but she knows she likes romance. A boy fascinated by the Civil War may search my shelf of war-themed books and discover the writing of James L. Swanson. By placing the books by genre I am able to create a type of comfort zone where my students feel free to explore. Just like no two students are alike, no two readers are alike. The more books on my shelves, the more opportunities I have to get students to read.

How I Kept Track of My Books
I didn’t. I literally have a love relationship with my books. My students know of my affinity, and they quickly understand that the books on my shelves are my personal friends. Friends that will break my heart if I lose the connection. Many a time when a student lost one of my books, he’s replaced it because he knows I care about each of my books. The real deal though– if a book doesn’t make it home to my shelf, I’m okay with it. Maybe it’s altruistic, but I hope she’s happily getting read somewhere by someone. As teachers and librarians we must remember that we cannot be the keeper of the books and the stories they hold (even if they do end up at Half Price Books with your name clearly stamped on them.)

Last May, at the end of the year I carefully selected my most treasured friends, but then I, like someone had once done with me, passed them on to another teacher to share the love of reading with her students. I can only hope her students have found as much pleasure in them as mine once did.

How do you build your classroom library? How do you prevent your books from never returning? (or do you?)

Building a Community of Readers by Sharing Our Own Struggles

booksAt least once a week, if not more, I see some news piece or article about how students these days are spending less time reading. Taking a minute to reflect upon my own reading life, I thought back to how I encouraged a community of reading in my classroom.

Over the course of a school year my students read a lot. Each year when we would count it up, we found that my eighth graders had read between 50-60 books each over the course of the school year.That’s 60 students reading about 60 books. That’s 1200 books. See? A lot! In my classroom, reading is contagious. Walk in the door, and you breathe in the reading bug. If you aren’t reading, you are separating yourself from something important. Reading takes precedence. By making reading a priority, and emphasizing that reading takes us places we’ll never get to, I am able to get even reluctant students to crack a book and creep into the pages. My struggling readers quickly learn that it is not about quantity or speed, but more about the fact that they are reading. Reading opens doors that the world slams shut.

No doubt, the biggest “Why read?” selling point to get my kids reading is my honesty. I openly tell them that when I was in sixth grade I hated to read. I hated to read! In fact, I hated to read so much that I only read one book all year. My students ooh and aah at that: “One book?” they question. Then I go on to tell them that I had a required book report due every six weeks, which meant read one book every six weeks. As you may guess, this discussion quickly turns into a math lesson with students questioning how I could have possibly passed sixth grade reading only one book. Every year I somehow skillfully turn the conversation back to reading. I let them question me: What about now? Do you like to read now? Do you only read because you have to? And my answer: What do you think?

It’s true that kids don’t care what you know until they know how much you care. Establishing rapport at the first of the year requires immediate, daily and purposeful attention, and honesty with students lends well to the building of it. I know it’s my honesty that makes it okay for my students to struggle with reading. We use my experiences, and make connections with their own, to talk about why reading is important and how we can grow as a room of readers. I flood the room with books. I talk about titles that painted pictures in my head. I read while my students are reading. My kids quickly see me as a reader.

Frequently, students want to know what turned me into a reader, like there’s some magic pill that changed my hate to love. They question me when I boast that I read forty-six books over summer vacation or 150 books total for the year. I model being a proud reader, and sometimes this leads to precious moments where my students and I have tender discussions about reading, and I am able to share my reading transformation story. Often students think that because I am their reading teacher I was born with a love of reading, and that it has always been easy for me. Once I dispel this myth, and they find out that I struggled for the better part of my life with reading, students are able to see me as a peer with a similar struggle, and if I work on the rapport right, they begin to envision themselves as readers. Isn’t that the key? If kids can see themselves as readers, maybe even if that seeing requires a high-powered magnifying glass, we can get pages to turn in their hands and characters to come to life. It only takes one book, and that’s a blog for another day.

In the mean time, what made you a reader?

It’s Monday. What are You Reading? Late but not forgotten

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

Books I FINALLY finished this week:


The Great Gatsby

A mere five days before the movie comes out, I have finally finished the book! This is now officially my third time to read the classic story and I loved it just as much this time as I did the first two times. I’m not sure if the visual images that I had playing in my head as I read were tainted by the movie previews, but I really think the glitz and glam of this era is purely mesmerizing.

Books I am going to read this week:

Texas Library Association Conventionphoto

Empty book bag in hand, a couple of weeks ago browsed the isles of the exhibit hall at the annual Texas Library Association Convention. While there I was able to snag some great books that I am so excited about reading. Of course I won’t get all of these read this week. In fact, most of them will move on to my to read pile for the summer, but none the less a new stack of books is always invigorating to a voracious reader. I think of all of these, I will probably start with Dessen’s latest. I can always count on Dessen to provide a nice story with great characters!

It’s Monday (or Tuesday). What are You Reading?

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

I’m fully aware that it isn’t Monday – The way I see it is it really is better late than never, right?

Books I read (or am still reading):

Scarlet scarlet

For those of you who have been following my posts, you know my feelings about sequels/trilogy/whatever, but I was drawn to continue reading this series because of the indirect relationship the series has with traditional fairy tales. In the first book Cinder, the author weaves the classic tale of Cinderella in a post-modern society. In the second book, Scarlet, the story of Cinder continues to unfold while at the same time a new character, Scarlet, is brought into the frame. Of course, Scarlet’s character is based of the fairytale Little Red Ridding Hood. It truly was fascinating to see how Marissa Meyer was able to intertwine both fairy tales all the while maintaining the futuristic story line. I am certainly curious to see how the series wraps up in the third book.

Books I’m reading (going to try to actually read) this week:


The Great Gatsby

My goal this week is to get through Gatsby. The Great Gatsby is one of the very few books I have ever read more than once and the only book I ever loved being required to read in school. Clearly, I was excited when I saw that the book once again was coming to life on the silver screen. While I have no notion that the movie is going to be an exact replica of the book I am, once again, excited to see someone else’s interpretation of this book that I have enjoyed.

Prior Knowledge: Helping our Struggling Readers

book depository

Every day we must make decisions, and somehow, whether we realize it or not, we are accessing our prior knowledge to make these decisions.  For example, there is a restaurant that I will never eat at again. 15 years later, I still remember the time I got violently ill after consuming one of their calzones. Now, someone brings up that restaurant–I cringe.

Sometimes my prior knowledge doesn’t come from real life. Sometimes it comes straight out of a book. A few weeks ago I had to make a really tough decision. As I sat weighing the pros and cons of my choices, Beatrice, from the book Divergent, and the struggle she had making a difficult choice came to mind. I found myself relying on her experience because that in fact was exactly how I felt.

Prior knowledge can come from a multitude of places, but it is the experiences I have had–along with the books I have read– that fill my storehouse of prior knowledge.  So what about prior knowledge and our struggling readers? Their storehouse of prior knowledge is barren. In talking specifically about early literacy, Nancy Lee Cecil explains that, “What readers bring to the activity in terms of prior knowledge … determines how well they will be able to derive a rich meaning from the text,” (Cecil, 2003). So, what about our students who do not have a rich background of prior knowledge? Whether it be a lack of experiences or a lack of reading–my question is:

What are we doing as educators to support students creating a bountiful array of prior knowledge experiences?


The most important thing teachers can do to help equip their students with a wealth of prior knowledge is provide opportunities for them to read–and read a lot. It isn’t about assigning book after book as a whole-class novel. It is about Independent reading. “Independent reading is all about capacity building,” (Kittle, 2012). By allowing students the time to vicariously live through the lives of characters in books, we in turn are allowing them to store up experiences. As teachers it is our responsibility to, “pay attention to the quantity as well as the quality in their reading lives (Kittle, 2012).” If students are to truly live culturally rich lives, then we must be more intentional about how we are making this happen in our classrooms.

Cecil, N. L. (2003). Striking a balance: best practices for early literacy (2nd ed.). Scottsdale, Ariz.: Holcomb Hathaway, Publishers.

Kittle, P. (2013). Book love: developing depth, stamina, and passion in adolescent readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Photo credit: TunnelBug / / CC BY-NC

It’s Monday. What are You Reading? – Spring Break on the Horizon

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

A critical role all teachers should play for their students is one of a book guide. Students desperately need adults in their life who will talk about, promote, and encourage them to further develop their reading skills.  – Yes, I am aware that I said ALL teachers. I don’t care if you teach math or music, you can still talk about books! This week, the week before spring break is a critical time for book guides. Before you send your students  on a week long retreat from all sound educational reasoning, take a minute and encourage them to make a plan to squeeze some time in for reading over spring break.

Books I read (or am still reading):

Into the Wildinto the wild

So, I’m still reading this book. Yes, I know it is just over 200 pages and I should have finished it already. The way I see it, I’m just trying to savor every moment… 🙂

Books I’m reading (going to try to actually read) this week:

just one day

out of the easy


Reflections from the Courthouse – Education Reform

courthouseA few weeks ago, I had the distinct privilege of getting summoned to jury duty (the third time in four years). Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy fulfilling my civic duties – voting, paying taxes, eating a slice of chocolate cake someone left in the lounge, but let’s be honest, jury duty can be a bit of a beat down. So as I saunter up the old steps of the courthouse, it is no surprise that I am less than enthusiastic about the idiocy that I am about to witness from the fine citizens of this county.

The only beacon of hope for jury duty days is that while at the courthouse I get to visit and eat lunch with my uncle who just so happens to be a judge. This time, when I went to his court, there was a nervous new prosecutor in his office requesting that the judge (my uncle) consent to the terms of a plea agreement he was going to file. The young man was clearly intimidated by my uncle (rightfully so), and although he seemed highly educated, he didn’t seem confident in his abilities as an attorney.

While at lunch with my uncle I asked about the young prosecutors that appear before his court. In education we talk a lot about how high school and college grads are not ready for the work force, so I was curious to know my uncle’s perspective on how this younger generation is hacking it in the real world.

To respond to my question my uncle said, “The problem with new prosecutors is not that they don’t know the information. They know the facts of the case inside and out. The problem is that they fail to tell a story that creates a complete picture of the case in the mind of the jurors.”

For me, this little slice of wisdom has direct implications to the classroom. When we are working with students, it isn’t enough that they know the facts and the information; they have to know how to take that knowledge and apply it to a given setting.

When we teach a concept or skill, we expect to see students apply it in their work. I think there is a step as teachers we often miss. The problem is that there is actually a great chasm between the input (the teaching) and the output (the application or product). The responsibility rests upon us, the teachers, to either construct, or help students construct, bridges that guide them to the application of the learning. Too often we are frustrated when students are falling of a cliff when in reality we never created a safe way for them to cross the canyon in the first place.

— Who knew jury duty would be so enlightening!

Photo credit: Ken Lund / / CC BY

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