April 28th, 2015

Teaching, Mentoring Student Teachers, Blogging, and Inspiration


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Inspiration comes in places and at times when you often least expect it. I am the veteran teacher, administrator, cooperating teacher, mentor, and “expert” to many, yet my student teachers this semester have left me speechless and inspired. Erin Taylor Green is graduating from UT Austin this summer after completing her student teaching in 5th grade here at UT Elementary. Her previous school placements left her feeling unsure about her future as a teacher, but now she’s ready to take on teaching with her eyes and heart wide open. Please read her blog post that now has thousands of readers and a request from Huffington Post to share her blog post. Amazing. There are no words that I could say today that compare to Erin’s so, what are you waiting for? Read her blog!

February 15th, 2015

Child Labor Products and Performances

I Am poem art CruzIt is remarkable what students create when given the freedom to create and collaborate. What started as creative writing about child labor lessons learned and point of view became published art and poetry. Close reading and primary source analysis evolved into public speaking and debate. My students not only have a deep understanding of child labor, it’s origin and history in the U.S., but they also realize that it still exists today in the world. They made connections to slavery and civil rights. In their view, the same injustices that immigrant children faced in the late 18th and early 19th centuries are the same that Jews faced in WWII Germany and slaves faced in America before the Civil War.

When given open-ended opportunities to express themselves, my 5th graders created products and performances like these:



With the photos from Lewis Hine and the imagination of my 5th graders, these lessons will last a lifetime.

Peace, ml

January 12th, 2015

Kids at Work: Child Labor and Student Projects

As my fifth grade students and I work backwards through American History, we find ourselves in the Progressive Era before World War I. It is also the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Russell Freedman’s book, Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor, Scholastic, 1995 (text copyright, 1994). Having just finished our studies of The Great Depression, WWII, and WWI, my students are ready to find out what America was like before these life-changing events. Before the holidays, we skipped forward to the Civil War and Slavery, so they have “bookend” contexts for child labor – what it was like in America before child labor and after. Not surprisingly, they’ve made many connections already to slavery and to the Civil Rights Movement.


Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor, by Russell Freedman

Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor, by Russell Freedman

As I gathered resources for my child labor unit, I started with Freedman’s Kids at Work and NCSS’ Middle Level Learning (MLL) Number 50, May/June 2014 and an article entitled Promote Inquiry about Child Labor with Online Historical Primary Sources. The readability level of Kids at Work is excellent for 5th grade, so I’ve ordered several copies. Amazon has several vendors who have good used copies available for just the cost of shipping ($.01 plus $3.99 for shipping). With enough copies, I will be able to use it for my guided reading groups this next week. We’ve already read Chapter 1 together where I modeled close reading. So that you can see how I integrate my language arts and social studies, I’ve included a screen shot of my lesson plans for this week.

Screen shot of lesson plans for child labor unit.

Screen shot of lesson plans for child labor unit.

We are reading expository articles and books, historical fiction novels, and reader’s theatre scripts. My students have already written Haiku poems about child labor (some published on Twitter @meledbetter @UTElementary #haiku) and will be creating art projects using materials that children worked so hard to produce and sell.

Twitter feed @meledbetter

Twitter feed @meledbetter

We’ve learned about where child labor originated and how it came over to the U.S. from Britain from a fascinating BBC series called Children of the Revolution (On YouTube, Children who Built Victorian England, Parts 1 and 2). This documentary is creatively done with the stories of young workers told and shown artistically. These stories set the stage for our study of child labor in America.

In the coming week, we will get continue our studies, take notes more in ELA Interactive Student Notebooks, and get creative with more writing and some vintage art projects using copies of Lewis Hine’s photos, textiles, charcoal, cotton, and newspapers.


ELA Interactive Student Notebook DBQ from child laborer’s point of view after viewing primary sources.


Haiku journal notes and poetry

Haiku journal notes and poetry

Wish me luck.  I’ll let you know how it all turns out.

Peace, ml

November 21st, 2014

NCSS 2014 Presentation Link

More to come later about this year’s amazing NCSS Conference. For now, here is a link to our Women’s History at the Core presentation on DropBox.


Peace, Mary

October 1st, 2014

Language Arts/Social Studies Interactive Student Notebooks

My Innovation Project this school year is my LA/SS Interactive Student Notebooks (ISN). I used them to a limited degree in the area of science years ago when they were all the rage and a “new and innovative” idea. When I left the classroom and became an administrator for six years, I watched and admired my talented teachers use them, also in science. I’ve been to PD and workshops about them – all years ago. Well this year, they are happening in my LA/SS classroom in a big way. Why, you ask? My answer is simple – Focus. Actually, the whole title is Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning. This is the book that my small group of colleagues was assigned to read over the summer.

After 25 years of teaching and learning, this book gave me simple ways to focus my attention and the attention of my students on what is most important. One of the author’s recommendations was to use journaling across the content areas. Mike Schmoker repeats throughout his book that the most important elements are “what we teach, how we teach it, and authentic literacy.” His premise is that we need to get back to the simplicity of direct teaching using excellent literature, implement consistent check for understanding, and have students apply and explain what they know in meaningful writing assignments daily. Schmoker summarizes his book in a Power Point PDF that is available on-line, https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=mike%20schmoker%20Focus%20powerpoint. I also shared a few highlights of this text with colleagues at UTES in the following Prezi, http://prezi.com/atqvwnn60d8n/copy-of-back-to-basics-with-authentic-literacy-in-content-areas/.

Three to four days each week, my large group language arts and social studies lessons include journal entries of vocabulary words, graphic organizers, reading, writing, or social studies writing. We enter the topic and page numbers in the Table of Contents and then go to the next even numbered page to record vocabulary, skills, and strategies. Students then are given an assignment to write or create a graphic organizer on the odd numbered page facing their journal entries. Even-numbered pages are input from me. Odd-numbered pages are output from students. I use these output pages for exit tickets, writing assignments, assessments, and reading analysis. I collect journals each week to review, assess, and respond to student responses. They love getting their journals back and reading my responses to their writing. They truly take pride in their work and use their journals as a reference when they need information. My language arts and social studies instruction is highly integrated so my LA/SS Journals (ISNs) are integrated as well. When I give a social studies test, I give open-journal tests. It is exciting to see my students mature and take on more responsibility for their own learning. Our Interactive Student Notebooks (we just call them Journals) are one way I’ve simplified and improved instruction so far this school year.

September 30th, 2014

Children as Caring Civic Agents and Citizens

How do we, as teachers, get kids to develop the habits of mind and skills to be thoughtful, participating citizens? I think about this question often. Daily, as a matter of fact, in my 5th grade classroom. Children have a great capacity for caring, an endless supply of energy and creativity, and are dauntless in their sense of duty.

The ways that I encourage civic participation are integrated into everything that I do in my classroom. It all starts with our Morning Meetings which include sharing about our lives and current events that the kids have seen and heard about at home or in the media. I question and listen. I require my students to question and be active listeners. We read books together that have themes of caring and civic involvement. We adopt service learning projects that help others and our school. I take time to recognize students for their selflessness. I encourage them to recognize one another. My language arts and social studies curriculum is chock full of people who’ve found a way to inspire and help others. If these ideas sound interesting, read on.

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is one of the pillars of our school mission. Every class has a Peace Table. Every teacher has resources to teach skills like empathy and peaceful problem solving. Every child recites our Peace Keeper Pledge daily and has the tools to be agents of change. My classroom Peace Table is not just a place to solve problems between students, but it is a place for my students to re-enact times in history where a protagonist and an antagonist can discuss their differences and solve problems from history. These Peace Table Talks require my students to apply what they know about history and problem solving in a creative simulation. They are fearless.

Another aspect of our SEL program is Morning Meeting. In 5th grade we have formal Morning Meetings on Mondays and Fridays where we follow the Greeting, Sharing, Activity, and Morning Message format. Other days our Morning Meeting is less formal and includes current events, read aloud, and Second Step (our SEL curriculum). Providing time for my students to share and discuss personal, community, and world events inspires them to be aware of current events so that they can discuss them. I bring in the newspaper daily so that on Fridays they can spread out all over the classroom and find interesting articles, editorials, and political cartoons that we analyze. This simple act builds civic awareness and involvement. The events in Ferguson, Missouri have led to many interesting conversations and connections to the Civil Rights Movement of the 5os.

We just finished reading Wonder, by R.J. Palacio. Wonder tells the story of Auggie, a tough, sweet, 10-year-old boy, who was born with distorted facial features. My students made many connections to their lives and social justice issues throughout the story. By taking the time to see the world through the eyes of a boy their age with challenging physical differences, their awareness and sense of social justice was awakened. I believe it has changed the way they see the world and people who are different than they are. That is a valuable trait in our ever changing diverse community. Other books we read that encourage and inspire social justice are: Seedfolks, Any Small Goodness, The Graduation of Jake Moon, and Among the Hidden. Each of these novels has opportunities for students to get involved and make a positive difference in their school or community. 

Making a difference in our school, local, and global communities is a theme in our Lil’ Longhorn 5th grade. We volunteer to collect, count, and send in our Box Tops for Education for the whole school. We volunteer to spend time with our Pre-K buddies each week to read and work on vocabulary and build trust and mentors along the way. We volunteer for Keep Austin Beautiful to do a lake-side clean-up and water quality testing. We also sponsor a school each year to help them have clean water and sanitary latrines through a non-profit organization called H2O for Life. Over the past 6 years, we’ve raised between $1,000.00-$2,000.00 each year for schools in Haiti, Tanzania, Guatemala, Kenya, South Sudan, and this year Democratic Republic of Congo. Our 5th graders research, make posters, blog, and write letters to Congress about the need for clean water so that children have the opportunity for an education. That, my friends, children as civic agents of change.

One last example of how we encourage our students to be agents of change is through a week-long dramatic experience called Creative Action. In 5th grade, our Lil’ Longhorns get to learn through simulating historical social situations and becoming secret “agents” of change. They join the ranks of other agents of change like Cesar Chavez, Ghandi, and Nelson Mandela, and others. These dramatic exercises are inspiring and give our students the confidence to take on the world.

Developing habits of mind and the skills to be thoughtful, participating citizens is such an important part of teaching. I hope some of these ideas will inspire you to do the same.

Peace, ml

August 10th, 2014

New Year, New Perspective

A new school year is upon us. Our Lil’ Longhorns get to meet their teachers tomorrow and school starts at 8:00AM on Tuesday, August 12, 2014. My summer was full of family, fun, and learning. From my family and the arrival of a new grandson, I learned that nothing is more important than the love we share. From my four days at the Holocaust Museum Houston (HMH), I learned that our history is full of heroes who rise up from hard times to change the future. From my colleagues at school and at the Capitol, I learned that we can all “be the change we wish to see in the world.” (Ghandi)

My new perspective this school year is thanks to the work and learning that I was fortunate to do at HMH this summer. The lessons we can all learn from the events of WWII need to be remembered and applied to today’s world. Racism still exists. Complicity still exists. Bullies still exist. Bystanders still exist.  The question is, what are we going to do about it? My goal is to spark civic involvement in my students and a inspire them to love history and learn from it for our future.

Happy New School Year y’all. It’s going to be great.



June 9th, 2014

Digital Turf, Student Engagement, and Digital Safety

In preparation for an interview later today about “ways that I engage students in learning on their digital turf”, I thought I’d think out loud on my blog. So here goes.

What comes to mind when you hear “digital turf”? What I think of is my students’ home turf – our classroom space, on our classroom computers and tablets, on our school secure Google domain, on their individual Google drives, email, etc. As teachers, we are constantly challenged to simultaneously teach our students to use technology and be competent 21st century communicators, and to also keep them safe.

This past school year, I was able to bring the world onto each student’s digital turf in a variety of ways. My students and I blogged about books, field trips, projects, and learning. We completed service learning projects that included reaching out on social media. Students created Prezis and used them to promote our service projects. We held Google Hangouts with digital learning community creators and authors, and we communicated with students all over the world.

Student blogs have become our 21st Century class journals. Instead of keeping composition books of student writing, my students blog. Using Kidblog.org has not replaced paper and pencil, but it has become a way for students to write and share with one another in a way that they enjoy. I am able to control content and comments by designing their webpage and only allowing comments within our class groups. Their blogs are visible to the public which motivates them to be published authors, but it is also safe. I receive an email when students’ posts are “ready to submit”. I can comment, edit, publish, or send back to students for revisions.

Our school, UT Elementary, added a Google domain this past school year, so our students now have emails, a Google Drive, and the ability to work from home on projects. This has made it easier in some ways and more challenging in others. Now that students can easily email and video chat with one another, we’ve had to establish clear ground rules and boundaries. On my list of things to do for next year is a formal training for both students and parents. My plan is to include levels of training and assessments that students must pass in order to earn more privileges and responsibilities. My plan is to start with learning.com lessons and assessments and build from there.

Global citizenship and helping others are important goals for 5th grade at UTES. We lead at least school-wide service learning projects each year. One of them is our annual H2O for Life Walk4Water campaign. For the past 5 years, we’ve raised awareness and funds for a school to have clean water and sanitary latrines. Schools we’ve partnered with so are are in Haiti, Tanzania, Guatemala, Kenya, and most recently, in South Sudan. Our public awareness campaigns have become more global with the use of social media (Facebook, Twitter, Prezis, and blogging). Our 2014 H2O for Life campaign raised over $1700 for South Sudan School 2.

Not only do our students help others globally from our own digital turf, but they also share their ideas, opinions, and questions students from different countries on WorldVuze.com, an online forum for students around the world to share their world views on topics and questions they create themselves. Topics range from “What was your favorite field trip ever?” to “Is your government trustworthy?” There are currently 113 questions with 3254 answers from 585 students in 8 countries. My students were fortunate to be one of the first classes to participate. WorldVuze became part of our weekly CAFE (Comprehension, Accuracy, Fluency, and Expand Vocabulary) station time. My challenge has been how to actively monitor student activity while teaching a small group. I will be rearranging my classroom tables so that laptop and tablet screens are visible to me at all times. It’s difficult, but I’m determined. The benefits of engaging my students in learning on their digital turf is outweighed by the challenges. I am having to stay ahead of the curve myself and find creative ways to make these types of learning experiences safe and meaningful to my students.

WorldVuze.com helps create thoughtful global citizens.

WorldVuze.com helps create thoughtful global citizens.

I’ll be updating my blog as I find just the right ways to make it all happen. Stay tuned! Peace, ml



April 22nd, 2014


Good things happen every day. We just need to help our kids learn to notice them and be grateful for them. These past 2 weeks, my students have had numerous opportunities to practice gratitude. We never know when a typical school day will turn into an extraordinary day. In just the past 2 weeks, my students and I have been overwhelmed with the thoughtfulness and generosity of the people around us. Read on and find out how we’ve been so blessed.

Mr. Mickey Klein shares Civil Rights Summit experiences with 5th graders.

Mr. Mickey Klein shares Civil Rights Summit experiences with 5th graders.

As you know, we love our social studies in 5th grade at UTES. Whether it’s Women’s History, The Great Depression, Civil Rights, or the Constitution, we love it. So when we went to Corpus Christi and Port Aransas, we missed the Civil Rights Summit here in Austin. If you cannot be in a place, the next best thing is hearing about it from someone who was actually there. That’s exactly what happened. Our beloved mentor and supporter, Mr. Mickey Klein, came to our classroom and shared his first-person experiences of the Civil Rights Summit. He brought 2 programs for our classes to have and shared the excitement and emotion of hearing 4 U.S. Presidents  and others speak on Civil Rights. He also shared about knowing LBJ’s daughter and how her life was affected as a child in the White House. My students felt like they were there and had many questions for Mr. Klein and thoughtful comments about the Civil Rights Movement. We found ourselves in awe and grateful for the experience of hearing about the Civil Rights Summit from Mr. Klein. Since he visits our classroom every week, we run the risk of taking it for granted that he’ll be there rain or shine. Mr. Klein shares his life with us and has done so since most of my students were in 1st grade. We are truly grateful every time Mr. Klein joins our classes and shares his wisdom and love.

Malcolm holding Mario on a typical day in Mrs. Ledbetter's class.

Malcolm holding Mario on a typical day in Mrs. Ledbetter’s class.

We were also reminded of the unexpected gifts we receive last week when our classroom bunny, Mario, needed to go to the veterinarian. I was given the name of a Brykerwood Veterinary Clinic by Dr. Melissa Chavez our Director who also had bunnies in her classroom years ago. I called and they have one veterinarian who sees bunnies, Dr. Biehle. He was scheduled to leave early that day and be gone over the long Easter weekend, but they said that I could bring him right in. My talented student teacher took over and I rushed to Mario to the vet. Dr. Biehle saw Mario and x-rayed his leg and shoulder. He found that Mario had a broken shoulder. He shared this information in a way that showed the utmost kindness and empathy. He explained that Mario needed lots of rest. He’d given Mario a shot for pain, trimmed his nails, and prescribed eye drops for his eyes which are almost gone (red-eyed bunnies often lose their eyesight). I, of course, was emotional and Dr. Biehle teared up along with me telling me that Mario might recover and he might not, and he was so very sorry to be the bearer of difficult news. As I waited to check out and get his prescription eye drops, Dr. Biehle came up, hugged my neck and said, “There’s no charge, and stop worrying so much.” Gratitude does not begin to express what I felt and what all 45 of our 5th graders feel towards Dr. Biehle. Mario is at home now recovering and doing well so far. He’s mastered the 3-legged hop and seems to be happy and content.

You never know when an unexpected gift will come your way. We’ve talked a lot in class about “paying it forward.” Gratitude starts with recognizing when someone has shown you a kindness or maybe even forgiveness. All we need to do is slow down and notice the gifts, great and small, that we receive and then show our gratitude. The last step – pay it forward. Thank you Mr. Klein. Thank you Dr. Biehle. Our UTES Lil’ Longhorn 5th graders will work hard to show others the kindness and generosity that you have shown us.

Who are you grateful for? Make sure you tell them, and then pass it on.

Peace, ml

April 9th, 2014

Sea Camp, Service Learning, SEL, and Soon-to-Be Graduates, 2014!

Sea Camp 2014 has been a huge success. As we travel home today, every student has a favorite story to share. Whether it’s this cool chartered bus with sky lights, restroom, TVs, and wifi, the Texas State Aquarium, the beach cleanup on Mustang Island, seafood at Snoopy’s Pier, the dorms at UT Marine Science Institute, the wetlands exploration, the RV Katy  boat trip, or sunrise and sunset on the jetty – it all rocked. We had the prettiest weather to date and the beach was beautiful. Every person we met was curious about who these kids were all decked out in burnt orange, and they were complimentary saying they were the best group of kids ever to visit – no matter where we were. Everyone we came across was impressed with our Lil’ Longhorn spirit, service, behavior, manners, knowledge, and creativity. We are so proud.

As our 5th graders get closer and closer to graduation next month, they are being called upon to demonstrate all the academic, social-emotional, and service learning qualities and skills they’ve been taught at UT Elementary. They have been asked to show compassion and empathy as they raise funds for South Sudan School 2 to have clean water. They’ve needed to show perseverance and tenacity on state and national assessments. They’ve required adaptability and courage as they apply for and prepare for middle school. Their honesty and hard work has been evident in their everyday lives at school and home, and they’ve proven their global citizenship through service learning, lessons on advocacy, letters to Congress, and support of schools in Senegal and South Sudan. Our Lil’ Longhorn students are ready to take on the world.

As we approach another UTES graduation ceremony, I am proud to count myself as a very small part of the great things these kids have and will accomplish. It is thanks to donors like Mr. and Mrs. Lupton who made Sea Camp and Outdoor School possible, supporters like Mr. Klein who volunteer in our classroom every week, and mentors like A.J. Bingham and Libby Jacobson Gagne who have taught our kids about advocacy and leadership. They say it takes a village to raise a child. Our UTES village of teachers, leaders, servers, volunteers, donors, and encouragers has raised another fine group of Lil’ Longhorn graduates.

Lots of pictures to follow soon! We’re home!

Peace, ml

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