Back-to-School Guide

The latest on recess, audiobooks, JClub Catholic Book Fairs, 3-D printing, and more!

By Lori Hadacek Chaplin

Did you know that audiobooks and more recess could be two easy ways to improve your students’ ability and desire to learn? The TCT Back-to-School Guide shines a light on recess, audiobooks, JClub Catholic Book Fairs, 3-D printing, a new college entrance exam called CLT, and websites that aid learning and bring fine arts into the classroom.

PLAYGROUND: More recess makes better learners

Are students and teachers in the United States getting enough breaks during the school day? Compare your school to schools in Finland; since the 1960s Finnish children have been getting a 15-minute break for every 45 minutes of class time, and Finland has consistently been a leader in education. Tim Walker, an American teacher based in Finland, learned the value of this firsthand after trying to buck Finnish tradition by having two 30-minute recesses. He found that his students were stressed and so returned to shorter breaks. “After these shorter recesses, students appeared to be more attentive in the classroom,” he wrote in his article in The Atlantic, “How Finland Keeps Kids Focused Through Free Play.”

Dr. Debbie Rhea, Texas Christian University (TCU) Professor of Kinesiology and Associate Dean for Health Sciences and Research, is the founder and director of the LiiNK Project (Let’s inspire innovation ’N kids). Intrigued by what she saw in Finland’s schools, since 2013 Rhea has been studying the effects of having four 15-minute self-directed outdoor recesses on early grade school children. The LiiNK Project currently involves K-2 students in 13 different Southwest schools and pre-K-6 in a small school in Chattanooga, Okla.

The results of her ongoing study speak for themselves. “We have found that the LiiNK students are 25-30 percent more appropriate in classroom behaviors than comparison school students, they are less fatigued throughout the day than comparison students, they are physically stronger and coordinated, [they have] better BMI scores, and they have better reading and math scores,” Dr. Rhea told Today’s Catholic Teacher.

Why does recess impact learning?

“Every time the child goes outside, it reboots the brain,” Dr. Rhea explains. With four recesses, this happens throughout the day, and running around outside develops more neurons firing in the brain — thereby creating numerous learning pathways.

Like Walker, Rhea found that two 30-minute recesses weren’t effective. “The further away from the recess the child is, the less impact the recess has on the capacity of the brain to function,” she explains.

Rhea also talks about how being outdoors is important to a child’s health. The sun provides vitamin D3 — a hormone necessary for a healthy immune system. “If we’re not out in the sun, D3 is deficient in our systems, and that creates allergies, asthma, migraine headaches, and other kinds of chronic disease.”

Recess: Not just for kids

If all of this doesn’t convince you of the need for frequent recesses, then think of the number of stressed-out, overworked teachers. A 2012 Gallup poll on the state of America’s schools found that 46 percent of U.S. teachers say they feel stressed. Clearly it’s not just students that need frequent breaks to reboot their brains. “Physical activity and play are important for [both] children and adults. It’s never not important for humans,” Dr. Rhea points out. “We should be doing LiiNK-type strategies in the workplace as well as in schools.”
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AUDIOBOOKS INSPIRE READING: Audiobooks turn students into booklovers and improve test scores

For years I have been sharing with parents that audiobooks are one of the best teaching tools out there because they allow young students to enjoy complex stories without having to stop to decode difficult words. Most first graders don’t have the reading proficiency for C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia or Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, but they get immense enjoyment out of listening to them. Britton Latulippe, author and founder of, told Today’s Catholic Teacher, “That is why it’s so important for parents to read to their children. However, since parents’ time is limited, their children’s learning is also limited accordingly. With audiobooks, kids aren’t limited by their reading level or [a] parent’s availability.”

Proving the benefits of listening

Recorded books are also an engaging way to improve vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension, teach critical listening skills, and broaden a student’s literature horizons — all of which adds up to better reading comprehension test scores. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), on 2015 test scores nearly two-thirds of all U.S. fourth graders read below proficiency. William Weil, cofounder and CEO of, an audiobook streaming service for schools, writes, “Students who can decode words but lack an understanding of their meaning are not reading proficiently, and proficient reading is the key pathway to academic achievement.”

In 2016, to discover the impact of audiobook listening on student vocabulary, reading comprehension, and motivation to read, Weil hired WestEd, a leading educational research nonprofit, to evaluate the use of Tales2go in a San Francisco Bay area school district. WestEd found that second and third graders that listened to Tales2go “were approximately three months ahead in reading comprehension in just 10 weeks, compared to the students who did not use Tales2go.” Also, the students that listened (not paired with text) outperformed the control group “by 3.0x in reading comprehension, nearly 7.0x in 2nd-grade vocabulary, and nearly 4.0x in reading motivation.”

Getting audiobooks into the classroom offers over 100 free, classically geared audiobooks with accompanying text and captivating art for grades pre-K-6. The website also includes audiobooks on language, character, classics, vocabulary, math, history, geography, science, and the Bible. To have access to all the books and quizzes, a $6.99 monthly membership is required. Blue Manor is a new site, and it’s expanding monthly. It was designed for homeschoolers, but once the developers are finished with the site and all the grades, Latulippe believes it will be an especially good fit for parochial school libraries. streams more than 6,900 titles and typically adds 100 new titles a month from leading publishers for pre-K through high school. Included are fiction, nonfiction, and Spanish language titles. Tales2go sells classroom, library, and individual licenses, at various price ranges. “A library license costs $500 annually and comes with ten licenses for use on school-owned devices in the library and 25 concurrent licenses that can be lent to students for use at school and home,” Weil told TCT. Most licenses allow students to listen at school and home. offers free public domain audiobooks read by volunteers. Some of the readers are professional, while others are amateur; anyone is welcome to read (a parent’s signature is required to allow a child to read). A great project for a middle-school or high-school literature class would be to record a book with Librivox. The only equipment needed is a computer, a microphone, some free recording software, and readers.

Exciting Catholic listening

Get students thrilled about reading and their Catholic faith with Radio Theatre and a Catholic supernatural thriller series. If you want to get grade-school students excited about reading, let them listen to Will Wilder: The Relic of Perilous Falls and Will Wilder 2: The Lost Staff of Wonders. After they listen, many students will want to read the books themselves. Written and read by Raymond Arroyo, host of EWTN’s The World Over Live, the Will Wilder fantasy series for children weaves Catholicism through an exciting supernatural plot. Twelve-year-old Will, the hero of the books, comes from a long line of family members endowed with special powers and ordained to protect precious religious relics. Suitable for ages 8 and up. $45 each for CD set from

For seventh through twelfth graders, Augustine Institute Radio Theatre’s The Trials of St. Patrick and Brother Francis: The Barefoot Saint of Assisi are professionally produced, full-cast audios with sound effects and accompanying music. Give students something to look forward to — listen to one of these stories during half of a history or religion class every Friday. $29.95 for each boxed set of CDs, which include discussion guides.

GRAMMAR SIMPLIFIED: Visual Guide to Grammar and Punctuation

“Every time you open your mouth to speak, you are using grammar without even realizing it!” explains Visual Guide to Grammar and Punctuation (DK, 2017). Children can feel intimidated by sentence structure and punctuation, so this new book is a great addition to any classroom. Typical of DK’s children’s books, lessons are accessible and entertaining through colorful illustrations, tips, and little rhymes to reinforce correct grammar. $16.99 from

Ignite Religion: Pauline Media’s “J” for Jesus Club

Bring Catholic literature to your school with Pauline Media’s JClub. For grades K-8, Pauline Books and Media publishes a vast array of books about Christ and the saints, the sacraments, Bible stories, prayer books, Catholic fiction, comic books, coloring books, and more. Through JClub’s book fairs, teachers can bring Pauline’s books to their schools. Not only will these books ignite students’ interest in Catholicism’s rich tradition, bu there is also a 10-30 percent rebate for schools that participate.

JClub also has an educator’s page that includes resources for the classroom, printable puzzles and coloring pages, reading lists, a monthly calendar, movie reviews from a Catholic perspective, and more.

Motivate Math — aimed at grades K-6 — offers games, brain teasers, quizzes, printable flashcards, and more to make math enjoyable. is the perfect answer to “Why do I have to learn math?” Its free, engaging videos will spark students’ interest in math and show how it’s used to solve practical and fun problems such as duplicating a Houdini act — namely cutting out a star with one snip of a scissors. Most videos are geared toward high school students, but younger students could benefit as well. Teachers should review before showing.

TECHNOLOGY: 3-D printing is affordable for classrooms

My ninth-grade biology class was right before lunch. When it came time to dissect frogs, the lingering scent of the formaldehyde that bathed the dead frogs — not to mention the disgusting matter of cutting into a real frog — was an appetite-killer. Now teachers can print 3-D models of a frog for dissecting, allowing students to learn the basics of anatomy without the cost and the mess of real frogs. 3-D printing isn’t just for science classes; every subject can benefit from models that provide hands-on teaching.

In 3-D printing, solid 3-D objects created with plastic filaments (choose PLA because it doesn’t emit fumes) layer by layer form a single digital file, and the great thing is that you don’t have to create those templates from scratch. Free websites such as do all the work for you, or visit to create original designs.
Don’t have a lot of money to spend? For less than $200, schools can buy a 3-D printer with good ratings on Amazon.

Feed the Soul

Middle-school and high-school teachers don’t have to be artistically inclined to include art in their lesson plans. Here are three websites that will help you incorporate sacred art, art history, and making art into your classrooms or after-school programs. has virtual tours and videos that transport students to a major museum that houses 2,300 masterpieces from artists such as Michelangelo, Raphael, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Vincent van Gogh. Approximately one-third of its collection of Western European art features Christian subject matter, so this site could be used to enhance religion classes. has 47 lesson plans to help teachers integrate learning about art into their classrooms. All meet Common Core State Standards. includes information on art movements, artists, and styles, and free art lessons. This site gives teachers the tools to guide students interested in learning about different media (paint, pencil, pastel, and others) and styles and techniques used to create art. Artyfactory also provides slideshows for art appreciation.

New college entrance exam

There’s a new standardized college entrance exam, which may be a better fit for your student. The Classic Learning Test (CLT) is an alternative to the SAT and ACT. While the objective of the ACT and SAT has become achievement, the CLT is an aptitude test with the aim of reconnecting intellectual pursuit and virtue. Students are tested on Verbal Reasoning, Grammar/Writing, and Quantitative Reasoning. Classically educated students especially score well on the CLT. There are 52 colleges (and counting) that accept the CLT in place of the SAT and ACT. The test is taken online and is proctored. Visit for more information.

Homework help for middle-schoolers and high-schoolers gives middle-school and high-school students the edge on studying vocabulary, science terms, history dates, foreign words, or any subject matter improved by making flashcards. The site allows you to search millions of flashcard sets or create your own, take fill in the blank test, play competitive timed learning games, and more. is the go-to site for math and science help in all grades, as well as for SAT prep. The site also covers the basics of economics and finance, computing, and arts and humanities. Students can watch videos, work problems, and take quizzes. provides answers and steps to math problems for basic math, algebra, calculus, stats, chemistry, graphs, and more. The student enters the problem, and Mathway checks the answer or solves the problem, but if you want to view the steps, you have to pay for a monthly or yearly subscription ranging from $19.99- $79.99, which is available on laptops and as an app. Of course, this app could be used to cheat rather than aid learning.

Image credit: Shutterstock 290627480

Image credit: Shutterstock 290627480

Lori Hadacek Chaplin writes from Idaho.

Image credit: Shutterstock 290627480

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