Posted in Miscellaneous

A Good Read-Aloud

I have always had a love for children’s literature, but I found an even greater love for it as I read aloud to students almost every day during practicum. It was a delight for me, and it had students totally captivated! It is so enjoyable for all students, and it is so good for students to have a model for reading. Even though at first it might mean tediously sounding out letters in each word, the students can see that reading is the key that unlocks the magic of a captivating read-aloud.

During practicum, my mentor teacher handed me a book titled The Book with No Pictures, by B.J. Novak, to read to the class during read-aloud time. The students had never read it before, and neither had I! Boy were we in for a surprise! This book is very silly! I have never heard a class of students laugh so hard in my life. They appreciated my willingness to be vulnerable and goofy with them. On the last day of practicum, this is the moment that they remembered the most and thanked me for.

I bet you remember a book that was read aloud to you as a child. I remember countless books that my mom read to me in our home. I also remember that in third grade, Mrs. Kelly read The Boxcar Children to us aloud. She certainly got me hooked on that series! I still have a clear vision in my mind of what the Alden’s boxcar looked like, and especially who Benny and Violet became, in my imagination.

Some of my favorite books to read aloud include…

  • Ruby the Copycat, by Peggy Rathmann
  • Officer Buckle and Gloria, by Peggy Rathmann
  • The Book with No Pictures, by B.J. Novak
  • You are Special, by Max Lucado
  • Miss Nelson is Missing, by Harry Allard
  • Miss Malarkey Doesn’t Live in Room 10, by Judy Finchler
  • The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear, by Don Wood
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle

What are some of your favorites?

Posted in Elementary Education Preparation, Secondary Education Preparation

Little Mavis

Little Mavis is an imaginary student invented by my principal. She’s pretend. Any resemblance of Little Mavis to a real student is merely coincidental. Nevertheless, Mavis was fundamental to my development as a teacher. She would randomly appear in conversations like this:

New Teacher: Do I really have to take my third period class to the high school Show Choir assembly? My third period is already behind all my other classes, and this will just put them further behind. (Side note to new teachers—this is probably not a good question to ask at faculty meeting.)

Principal: If Little Mavis has a brother in the Show Choir, she will go home broken-hearted that she didn’t get to see him perform. After school, her mother will call and be upset with both of us. So yes, you do need to go to the assembly. (Side note—this applied to every assembly, not just Show Choir. Little Mavis would be equally devastated if she didn’t get to see Birds of Prey or Secrets of a Mad Scientist.)

At our middle school of a thousand 6th and 7th graders, Mavis was the student we talked about most in faculty meeting. It was important that Little Mavis went home happy, healthy, and looking relatively the same as she did when she left in the morning. We were instructed to be vigilant and proactive during hall, bus, and lunch duty because it was important that Mavis felt safe, physically and emotionally. We were cautioned to be particularly sensitive to the sixth-grade version of Little Mavis because this was her first time away from the nurturing environment of her elementary school. Help her open her locker. Give her a pencil. Excuse tardies for the first week or two. Don’t tease her about the small stuffed animal attached to her backpack. (Side note—sixth graders cry easier than seventh graders.)

Mavis emerged in our English Department meetings too. We English teachers can sometimes be a snobby bunch, but even though she was a fictional character, we always treated Little Mavis with sensitivity and respect. I remember during my second year suggesting an idea that I thought would save us time and effort as teachers. My wise department chair taught me a lesson I will never forget. She simply stated, “That would be easier for us, but would it best for the students?”

You see, by keeping Little Mavis continually in our consciousness, our principal established an unwritten culture in our school: Our focus is on the students. This was before No Child Left Behind and Professional Learning Communities. Intuitively, we developed own versions of Differentiated Instruction, Engaging All Learners, and Teaching for Diversity because we cared about Little Mavis. As new initiatives were introduced over the years, they resonated with me because they validated my inner belief that every student matters.

Our school never had an actual student named Mavis during my tenure, but I’ve come to realize that she is every student. One whose grandparents settled our small community as pioneers and one who only knows only two words of English. One whose mom who chases her from soccer practice to piano lessons after school and one who takes care of her siblings every night while mom is out with her boyfriend. One who is writing a novel and one who still plays with Barbies. One who often tells you that you’re her favorite teacher and one who rolls her eyes every time you ask the class to take out paper and a pencil. And we all know male versions of Mavis; I called him Bubba.

Little Mavis blessed my life, for she taught me many things about teaching as the Savior taught. Get to know your students. Ask questions. Listen. And most of all, love and care about each as an individual. Mavis and Bubba inspire all of us to be better teachers.


Written by: Annette

Posted in Miscellaneous

The Workshop Way

As a classroom teacher, I saved everything because “I might need it in my classroom”—everything from baby food jars, toilet paper rolls, scraps of fabric, buttons, paper scraps, yarn, containers of all kinds, and a myriad of children’s and teacher reference books. Today I was unpacking my home office books and collectibles after our recent move to a new home in a new city. Long ago I had gotten rid of the baby food jars and toilet paper rolls when I left the classroom to become a principal. When I retired from the principalship, I still maintained an extensive home library of educational books and resources, but as our family prepared to put most of our possessions into storage for a few months until the new house was ready, I was very selective about what I saved. Today as I unpacked each box, I considered why each item seemed important enough for me to save.

Among my treasured books, I found I had kept only two teacher reference books from my earliest teaching years. One was a favorite on classroom management, and the other was spiral bound, typed on an actual typewriter (not a computer), and mimeographed (that’s the way we used to make copies). I knew why I couldn’t part with The Workshop Way (original copyright 1970) by Grace H. Pilon, a Catholic nun who taught all levels from kindergarten through university. Sister Grace’s book and life had a remarkable impact on my early teaching foundation. Her philosophy and teachings about children stayed with me over 35 years as an educator, and I think that most likely very few of today’s teachers have ever even heard of Sister Grace, although I believe her ideas about children are just as important for today’s children as they were 35 years ago.

I first read about Sister Grace in 1980 and then attended her guest lecture at BYU. I discovered that Kathy Whitbeck, a teacher in Alpine School District, was creating a Workshop Way classroom, so I arranged with my principal a visit to observe Kathy in action. I was awed by what I saw and began to immediately plan how I could create a Workshop Way classroom in my own first grade room.

Up to that point I had been teaching my first graders much like I had been taught when I attended first grade and just like I had seen modeled during my pre-service education at BYU. Students did their work in their seats and always worked quietly without talking to each other. My own first grade year was very traumatic; I was petrified of my teacher and lived in constant fear of being yelled at or humiliated. We only spoke on the playground at recess and never spoke with our peers during class. I was seeking a different approach to teaching from what I had experienced as a child and had observed as a teacher, and Workshop Way resonated with me—with my feelings about how my own children were learning and growing at home. I knew I needed to work with small groups of children to teach them to read because of the varying needs of my students, but I didn’t know what to do with the other children as I worked with a small group. The Workshop provided meaningful tasks for students to complete independently or with another student while I worked with a small group. Of course this was 1980—way before centers and independent literacy activities were the norm. I was first attracted to the Workshop Way schedule which facilitated small group instruction, but I later grew to appreciate even more Sister Grace’s philosophy that enables all students to learn how to learn, learn how to think, and learn how to manage life (Pilon, 1970).

Sister Grace taught teachers and parents that a learning climate where every child can learn and succeed is created as intellectual safety is nourished through the Five Freedoms (Pilon, 1970):

  • freedom from fear
  • freedom of movement
  • freedom of position and location for work
  • freedom of conversation while working
  • freedom of choice frequently

Sister Grace taught me that if students are to learn and grow in an intellectually safe environment, they need assurance on some foundational ideas that many adults assume children understand, but children’s life experiences so far may have taught them otherwise. And so to promote freedom from fear I explicitly taught, continually reinforced, outwardly modeled, frequently spoke, and openly posted in my classroom the following statements from Sister Grace:

  • It’s intelligent to ask for help.
  • It’s okay to make mistakes while learning.
  • It takes courage to take a risk.

As I embraced the Five Freedoms, my classroom structure and culture changed dramatically. My classroom Workshop provided opportunities for students to move around the room, work at their desks, at tables or on the floor, converse and collaborate with peers, and choose from among several Workshop tasks (where some tasks were required daily).

For 18 years the classroom rules I explicitly taught, openly practiced, and clearly posted resulted from my study of Sister Grace’s work:

  1. We respect the rights of others.
  2. Show good manners always.

The goal of Workshop Way is to help each child grow and develop individually and then do his part to make the world a better place. Teachers accomplish this goal by doing the following:

  • Establishing a state of intellectual safety for all students by creating a work-life climate. This is partially accomplished through a Workshop Schedule of independent tasks students can accomplish when they are not being taught by the teacher.
  • Fostering supportive interpersonal relationships among students and between teachers and students.
  • Preserving personal integrity and human dignity in students while they are in the process of learning and growing.

Although Sister Grace was an amazing teacher, thinker, and advocate for children, her writing is often difficult to navigate. I think this somewhat affected the dissemination of her ideas, but there are still educators today who are carrying on her work. Sister Grace died in 1995 at the age of 85 after a lifetime of service to children. Kathy Whitbeck died in 2015. I thank them both for their impact on me and subsequently on all the children who were part of my journey as an educator.

If you are currently working toward a career as a teacher, seek great thinkers like Sister Grace who will help you forge your own philosophy about students and learning. Read great resources, observe stellar mentors, and then reflect on what you learn; formulate your own philosophy and values that will guide your work in the classroom. Teachers teach content, but more importantly they shape lives and help build character in tomorrow’s workers, thinkers, leaders, parents. What an awesome responsibility and great joy it is to be a teacher!


— Susan Huff


Pilon, G. H. (1970). Becoming a person the workshop way. New Orleans: The Workshop Way, Inc.



Posted in Introductions, Miscellaneous

Susan Huff’s journey through education

G1-BYU freshman
Susan Huff, far right, stands with her roommates in front of Carroll Hall during their freshman year at BYU.

When I entered BYU as a freshman, tuition was $240 per semester, girls could not wear jeans on campus, and Ernest L. Wilkinson was President of BYU. I got a job as a part-time secretary in the Graduate Dean’s Office in the Administration Building because I could take shorthand at 120 words per minute and type at 100 words per minute on an electric typewriter (with no correction device or spell check); I earned $1.75 per hour—about $70 twice monthly. One paycheck covered tithing, my $35 monthly rent at Heritage Halls and my orthodontist payment of $25 per month. After tithing, the other $70 check covered my living expenses. Right now you are probably saying, “Wow, how times have changed!” Some things have definitely changed at BYU. Heritage Halls have been torn down. Although minimum wage has more than quadrupled since I was a freshman, tuition is 10 times greater now. Working full-time over the summer covered my tuition; working 20 hours per week during school covered my living expenses. It would be extremely challenging nowadays for a student to earn enough at a minimum wage job to cover both tuition and living expenses.


Although many things have changed, there are some things that have remained the same. BYU is still a fabulous place to earn a degree in a gospel-centered environment. The Star Spangled Banner is still played at 7:50 a.m. each morning across campus; I hope everyone still stops and stands at attention. The McKay School of Education still turns out a great, marketable product in their graduates, who positively impact the field of education. I received a great pre-service education at BYU, but I have continued to learn and grow through my association with the McKay School of Education over many years. Let me explain.


I married Richard Huff during my junior year and graduated from BYU 10 days over-due with our first child. My plan was to be a stay-at-home mom, but all that changed when my husband, a high-school business teacher, had an opportunity to enter a business partnership in our home town of Spanish Fork, Utah.   He was working nights at 7-11 to provide for our family that now included three children. Then during the day he was running the business. I suggested that perhaps I should teach for a year or so until the business could support our family.


Susan's Graduation 136
Susan Huff, left, stands with her department chair Dr. Ellen Williams when she received her doctorate degree.

Before I knew it, “a year or so” turned into 34 years. I taught first grade, fourth grade, and gifted pullout for 18 years. I worked two years at BYU as a Clinical Faculty Associate working with pre-service elementary education students while I was completing a master’s degree in educational administration. I earned a doctoral degree from BYU in educational administration and worked 14 years as an elementary school principal in three different schools within Nebo School District.
In addition to my formal education at BYU, some of my richest learning experiences resulted from my work with the BYU/Public School Partnership. In 1985 I was teaching fourth grade at Larsen Elementary in Spanish Fork when the school became one of the first partnership schools. I collaborated with Dr. R. Carl Harris followed by Dr. Jess Walker from BYU, who were great mentors and teachers with the partnership. I had opportunities to teach pre-service teachers, present at conferences, and participate in educational research.


Susan Huff received the Distinguished Alumni Award, was named Utah’s National Distinguished Principal by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, and works as an educational consultant.

Later as a principal, I participated in the first CITES (Center for the Improvement of Teacher Education and Schooling) Principals’ Academy, and then had many opportunities to present at subsequent academies. Through Principals’ Academy, I was introduced to the Professional Learning Communities Model of school improvement. Applying principles from this model helped turn our school from the lowest performing school in Nebo School District to a school where students performed well. In 2006, I was named Utah’s National Distinguished Principal by the National Association of Elementary School Principals because of the great work our school staff had done to improve learning for our students. That led to my part-time work as an educational consultant with Solution Tree, a publishing company that publishes school improvement books, and conducts workshops and institutes across the country.


Although I retired from the principalship in 2013, I continue to work as a consultant, helping schools learn and apply school improvement principles. I have loved my career as an educator! I feel deep gratitude for the formal education I received at BYU, along with a multitude of learning experiences I received through the BYU/Public School Partnership. Teachers change lives!   It is a great honor to be a teacher and a graduate of the McKay School of Education.