January 2011 - Nancy Teaches

A Teacher Who Loves to Learn

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Wednesday, January 26

Get up and move!

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I remember when I was in college and began my “teacher” courses. Every course I took was exciting and I seemed to be able to grasp every concept easily. There are some people in the world who are natural musicians or artists and I discovered my gift was understanding teaching. I knew where I belonged. I was so enthusiastic about everything; they practically had to tie me down.

I also remember one particular course where we learned about learning styles. Through this course, I identified what I had suspected all along about myself. I am a kinesthetic learner. I need to move. While others could sit still for hours, I learned best by pacing and moving my arms and adding movements to concepts. So, guess what happens in my classroom…

We get up and move!

Throughout the course of a day, my students are moving. Admittedly, the beginning of the year is a time of establishing procedures, rules and routines, but by mid-year, it flows like butter. Transitions in our room are seamless. We know how to gather materials, wait for a friend to finish before we try to get our own things, set ourselves up to work, (define our space) and most importantly, monitor our learning mood.

I stress the importance of being aware of an internal barometer. We check in with ourselves. We ask ourselves: How long have I been sitting? Do I need to stretch? Have I had anything to drink to stay hydrated? Am I feeling frustrated? My students learn self-awareness, which facilitates more success.
Through this self-assessment, the students can make changes to monitor their own learning. For my students with attention issues, this need to move can make all of the difference between a successful and frustrating day. They feel in control.

During a lesson, I will often ask the class to stand. Sometime I ask them to sit on their desks. Once I even asked them to sit backwards! Students need to move! This is not to say there aren’t times where we are still and focused on a task intently. My goal is to provide opportunities to allow for different learning styles and help them determine which one identifies them.

So, if you come into my classroom, you may be surprised by the high level of activity with me moving along with them.
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Saturday, January 22

You will NOT Lose Recess Here

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My students are hard workers! We have stamina and momentum. I know this to be true because we discuss it daily. Along with curriculum goals, I stress the importance of being aware of how we learn – Metacognition! We think about thinking.

When my students first met me, they went through quite an adjustment period. They were a stressful group and they were always anxious about “finishing.” All of their focus and energy was directed to this goal of finishing. I felt as though there was a beast looming over them waiting to pounce. It was scary.



It took me months to re-program their attention to learning and away from the scary finishing monster. I can’t even describe their faces when I told them I don’t keep kids in for recess. They were shocked. They had been taught that if they didn’t finish all of their work, they would lose their recess!




We post a “to do” list on the board each day. They know that this is a guide and we view it as ambitious goals. We call the list “ambitious” because we know that
we won’t always finish items. After my mini lessons, each student decides the order of the work they will do. Some students like to do the most challenging tasks first, while others like the feeling of accomplishing the easier tasks first. They know the order is a personal choice and I’m happy if they are learning.


I came up with this procedure because I’m a list maker. If I have a lot of work to do, I want to do what I want to do, in the order I want to do it. My list and my mood determine the order. It is never the same. Why not give this power to kids?

What I have found is that kids thrive when given choices! They need to feel in control of their learning. For my students with attention issues, this has been a revelation for them. They flourish in an environment where they can break their assignments into manageable chunks. As they work, they can turn in assignments, gather things for the next, take a break, ask me questions… they can MOVE!

Could you imagine being told you can’t get up for hours until you finished your list of things to do? I couldn’t do it.

Now, you may wonder if there are students who take advantage of this freedom and do little work at all. It very rarely happens. The students have learned the value of self-monitoring. At times it may appear as if a student isn’t working; maybe they’re thinking, pausing, resting, or clearing their minds. This is encouraged. (Don’t we all need this?)

While they are working independently, I’m working with students one-on-one or in small groups. They know if they need me, and I’m busy, they can go onto something else or ask a friend. Most importantly, when I work with them and they show me their work, if I feel they have mastered the concept, I declare it finished. This was hard for some overachievers to embrace. I don’t like tedious, busy work.

Another benefit is for some students who may struggle in a particular area, they can work more slowly without worrying about catching up or falling behind. They know that I value the process, not how many problems they finished.

They trust me. They know I’m fair. When I look up from my table and see my students, some are working at their seats, some are lying on the floor, and some are under tables. They are learning.

I’d like to think that I’m preparing them for the future when they will have “to do” lists in their adult lives and they will rely on the foundation of good work habits they learned.

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Wednesday, January 19

No Rock Stars or Professional Athletes Allowed?

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My students are reading Fever 1793 and the main character, Mattie has ambitious dreams for her life. Naturally, the integration aspect for my students is to write about their dreams for their lives.



At this point in fourth grade, we are constructing multi-paragraph essays. My technique is typically successful. The students know that every paragraph has a goal/purpose and that there is an imaginary thread that runs through the essay. All of their thoughts/sentences have to hook on to that thread.





After my lesson, my student observer shared that she was quite surprised by something I did. During the brainstorming part of my lesson where the students generated ideas about their dreams for their jobs, their future families and their contributions to society, I explained that rock stars and professional athletes were not to be listed as a job. They had to choose a career that could be attained through a college education.

My student observer couldn't believe I placed this restricting parameter on their dreams. I explained that for the essay to be truly reflective and interpretive along with cohesive (the thread) all three categories (goals) had to relate to one another. She still wasn't buying it. (I'm pretty good at reading faces.)

I further explained that I wanted the students to choose a career that was more realistic and likely to happen for them. These were not fantasy stories. The students took the directive in stride and created incredibly detailed lists that will guide their writing.
What I didn't say to either my observer or students is that I am frustrated by the way we glorify rock stars and professional athletes and place them on pedestals. I want students to emulate and celebrate policeman, fireman, teachers (!) and people who truly contribute to society - our unsung heroes.

Of course, famous people and professional athletes contribute as well; that is obvious. However, the corner of my classroom wasn't the right time or place for me to be overly philosophical. I did know for sure that this writing assignment is one that students (and parents) usually save to re-read later in life.

After some further self-reflection, I knew she wasn't questioning my technique; just the restrictive parameter that I had set. Sometimes as teachers/educators/parents, we make judgement calls that (I hope) are always in the best interest of the kids.

So I'm comfortable with my decision. I'm glad I re-examined my position and I hope I gave my student observer a different way of looking at the lesson.

(If one of my students becomes a rock star or a professional athlete, they can say they had this teacher once who believed passionately that all students should contribute to society and get a college education, too.)

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Saturday, January 15

8 Secrets of Success or Confessions of a Conceited Teacher?

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I'm a successful teacher. I'm not bragging, although it may seem that way. I love what I do and I feel successful. Am I arrogant? Am I conceited? Am I too full of myself?

Yesterday I was speaking to my student observer and I heard myself say to her, "I've been teaching for 29 years and I can't wait to see what I will learn this year." After I said it, I realized that I really meant it.

I never stop learning. Is that why I consider myself to be successful?

Then, quite accidentally, I came across this video and knew I had to reflect some more.

Richard St. John shares his 8 secrets of success.


So, I thought about each label of success and my career:
Passion - No brainer here! I've been a teacher my whole life. It defines me. It drives me. It's who I am. I think back to when I started my own school in my backyard when I was in fourth grade. It is my destiny.


Work - I put in the time. I don't watch the clock as I grade papers, plan and research better ways to teach.


Good - When I think of my first year of teaching and what I did NOT know and how I have practiced and practiced for 29 years to reach my current level.  It takes time to be good.


Focus - Life happens and I've tried many different areas in education, but I've never lost my focus on teaching.


Push - When I doubted myself the most, I pushed myself the hardest.  I was driven to learn more.


Serve - One of my favorite quotes is: "No one should teach who is not a bit awed by the importance of the profession." (George E. Fraiser)  It is a privilege to teach and I try never to forget this.

Ideas - I love to create my own way of doing things. Sometimes it has brought me a wealth of trouble, but more often than not, it brought success.

Persist - Even when I felt I messed up; even when no one knew, I didn't quit.  At my lowest, when I felt I would leave teaching and go work in a book store, I persevered and found new ways to rejuvenate and ignite my passion.


I am a successful teacher: not in a conceited way. I consider myself successful because I never stop learning.


Are you a successful teacher?  What do you hope to learn this year?



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Tuesday, January 11

Thanks to #rscon11 (Why I'm not grading!)

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This weekend I attended a variety of sessions at the virtual Reform Symposium, a worldwide e.conference (#rscon11).  By the end of the weekend, my head was close to bursting with ideas, enthusiasm and learning.  I truly felt a sense of wonder at how much I could learn sitting at my laptop.  I couldn’t wait to get to school on Monday, and once I was there, I tweeted at lunchtime that I was already a better teacher because of the Reform Symposium.

There was one particular thing among the abundance of things that I learned that was the most powerful.

One of my goals this year was to start blogging with my students.  After a bit of a slow start, my students are blogging and they love it. Along with their enthusiasm, their writing skills are soaring.

I’m passionate about teaching writing to my students.  I take pride in knowing that when they leave me they have a foundation upon which they can rely as they move on in their educational journey.  Admittedly, I do begin many of my blogs with “I’m passionate about…” but this is really true.  I love to teach writing.

Blogging seemed only natural.  I’m creeping up on my one year anniversary of the birth of my blog, so I couldn’t wait to introduce it to my students this year.  My eager group quickly embraced the idea and even began blogging independently without prompts from me.  Once they discovered commenting, well, let’s just say, they were hooked!

Along the way, I realized I wasn’t grading their work.  I was having so much fun modeling, discussing, and exploring with them, but I knew I  hadn’t created a rubric.  Was I slacking as a teacher?  Uh oh!  Conferences and report cards were approaching and I had nothing to show about the blogging.  My gut instinct told me that I shouldn’t grade their blogs.  I just couldn’t do it.

This weekend at #rscon11, I discovered that I was not alone in my “not grading” approach to the students’ blogs.  During the sessions I attended, blogging with students was a topic that was discussed frequently.  Presenters and participants all agreed that blogging is NOT to be graded.  Would any of us want our own blogs graded?  Everyone agreed that it would be counter-productive as well as a way to discourage students from blogging.

Through the Reform Symposium sessions, I received the validation of my instinct.  Grading their blogs would turn this joyful, engaging, and exciting venture into another assignment rather than the authentic learning that it is meant to be for students.  I will not risk dampening the fire they have for blogging by slapping a rubric or a grade on it.

Every so often, it feels so good to be right about a decision.

So thanks, #rscon11.    



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Saturday, January 8

Breaking the Rules

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I follow this philosophy:  If I wouldn’t shout it down the hallway in school; I don’t say it on my blog or on twitter.

I’m about to shout and I may summon the Reading Workshop Gods/Rule Makers/Police to come down on me in a reign of disappointment and anger.  I’m breaking one of the biggest rules…


(I’m taking a HUGE risk!  Here comes my secret…)

I’m teaching using a novel! 

Those that know me and follow my blog know I am more than passionate about Reading Workshop.  As a matter of fact, I threatened to quit my current school position if they didn’t let me switch to Reading Workshop!  I was determined to rid myself and my students of the dreaded basal and the mind numbing, useless and worthless multiple choice tests.  (Obviously, I work in a private school and I could make this threat.)

To me, the worst and most damaging thing we can do is force students to read the same story.  In the past, I was forced to use a basal that included stories that were boring, tedious and basically, turned kids off from reading.  Using the basal did not give them a chance to apply strategies and reflect their comprehension.  I need to have one-on-one conferences where I can engage with students. 

So, why am I contradicting myself?  Why am I teaching using a novel?  Why am I breaking the rule that everyone should have choices about what they read to foster a love of reading as well as build comprehension?  I’m a firm believer that requiring a student to complete endless worksheets about a novel will foster nothing but drill and kill hatred of the novel and maybe, even reading.

My approach is different.  Here’s what I’m doing.

In fourth grade, the students are required to spend the year learning about Pennsylvania.  The text book that I’m required to use is dry as dirt and boring.  I needed a way to make learning about the history of Pennsylvania interesting and engaging.  So, I developed an integrated approach to learn about the time period after the Revolutionary War and leading up to the Civil War.

I am reading Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson to the students.  Each student has their own copy and they read along with me.  Through this novel, I provide mini lessons each day on the comprehension strategies.  Rather than using picture books, we are reading the novel. 

Then, we are doing a wealth of project based learning activities. 
  • When the students returned from winter break they found the classroom had been transformed into a coffeehouse and each student had to assume the role of an upper class, middle class or lower class person in 1793. This led to reflective essays that they will record as podcasts. 
  • We are creating a radio station (WTSF 1793) to broadcast events from this time period. They are working on advertisements for different products/people that you would find in 1793. (For example, they will advertise Dr. Benjamin Rush’s method of bleeding to cure you of an infection.) The students came up with the idea to do a newscast as well as the radio station and use the video camera, but we are still figuring out if we can accomplish this. 
  • They are creating a giant mural of Philadelphia in 1793. They are using math and measurement skills to design the map that is historically accurate. 
  • The students will create “I Am” poems as if they were the characters in the novel.
  • All of the activities that we are doing are done cooperatively in groups or with partners. 
  • Concurrently, I am still providing mini lessons about informational text, and the students will be doing historial research projects about topics they choose. 
  • We will be taking a field trip that is a Walking Tour of Historic Philadelphia.
I’m admitting that I’m breaking the “rules” of Reading Workshop, but I’m confident that the students will not only enjoy this novel, they will learn in every area of the curriculum. 

So, I’m teaching using a novel. 
It is so much fun.
I hope my fellow Reading Workshop colleagues will understand.







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Friday, January 7

"What do you think?"

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My favorite quote: Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon. E.M. Forester

Throughout the course of my teaching day, I ask the question, “What do you think?” over and over and over.  It seems to be my response to almost everything.

My students ask an abundance of questions.  This is what I have taught them to do.   We’ve spent months discussing that asking questions is the key to learning.  What they are beginning to notice, however, is that I don’t provide the answers.  That’s their job!

I want my students to be active learners.  I want my students to be personally responsible.  I want them to think!  To me, the first step is asking, “What do you think?”  Of course, this doesn’t mean that I don’t provide assistance; it means that I reflect back, wait and give them the gift of time.

For someone like me who moves quickly and has a high energy level, I had to learn to lengthen my “wait time” when working with students.  With a lot of practice, I developed the ability to give students a chance to verbalize, process and think about things before I plowed ahead.  Even today, after all these many years of teaching, I will silently count to five to make sure I don’t rush/correct a response.   Those five seconds can be really long for a teacher, but so vital to a student’s learning and thinking.

Often times one of my students will start to ask me a question and then interrupt themselves because they know what I will say in response.  They roll their eyes and state back to me, “I know… I have to think!” 

Then, we smile. 
Then, they think!
Then, they learn.





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