Tuesday, December 28

Watch out World - I'm Global!

As a teacher, I think of the year as beginning in September and ending in June.  However, with the abundance of New Year’s related posts being generated and the media flooding the public with top 10 lists, I decided to jump on the bandwagon.

This year has been a time of change for me.  So many new things happened that it makes me catch my breath.  I’m overwhelmed by how many new things and experiences I had.  The word that comes to mind to describe it all is global. 
In June, I was fried!  Burned out and exhausted.  I had taken on too many extra responsibilities at school and found myself drowning in tasks that didn’t bring me joy.  It was taking my focus off of teaching.  Moreover, the environment had some toxic elements that needed to be cleaned out.  (How’s that for being vague and not stating what I really want to say?)  I decided to take the summer off.

I completely disconnected from school.  I tutored a few students because I wanted to and set my own hours.  I spent hours reading and researching new tools and techniques I wanted to try in the classroom.  I read constantly and wrote blogs on a regular basis.  I wanted to refuel my passion for learning and open new doors.

At the beginning of the summer I connected with @tcash on Twitter.  Tania had this idea to start #elemchat and along with three others (one from Australia), a new chat on Twitter was born.  Thursday nights at six is my “Do Not Disturb” time.  Each week we discuss an issue in education/teaching and connect with fellow educators in a global way.  My need to keep learning is fed.  Now, we’ve expanded to Saturday nights as well.  The added and unexpected bonus was Tania and I formed a friendship that is closer than the ocean that separates us!  Originally, from Canada, Tania lives with her husband and son in Morocco and teaches at an international school.  She has sent me books about Morocco and is determined to get me there for a visit.  She is my first international friend.

Also, during the summer, I was presented with an opportunity to write curriculum for Abu Dhabi.  A company hired me to write lessons and help construct a scope and sequence for twelve grades.  I had a taste of how things are done in the corporate world and loved learning about another country.  The experience opened up a whole new world for this small town girl.  My naiveté was at times embarrassing, but I just kept asking questions.  No one seemed to mind.

As I moved into the fall of this year, I was determined to add blogging to the world of learning for my students.  It took me longer than I had expected to get it started, but it was worth it.  My students are learning to think globally.  We track our hits on the maps and research the countries that visit our blogs.  This might be one of the most powerful tools I’ve brought to my classroom in years.  It is hard to describe the enthusiasm the students have for blogging and comments.  Along with my students, I’ve learned to think outside my own backyard.

When I reflect on 2010, I’m in awe of how much I learned. For a girl who has never left the borders of the United States, I’ve begun to travel.  My horizons have expanded and who knows, I may even get a passport in 2011.  

I would love for you to share where you "traveled" to this year.  

Friday, December 24

Winter Break Work

Its Christmas Eve morning.  My grown up children are home, along with a friend.  Everyone is sleeping.  I couldn’t wait for winter break to recharge my battery,  and guess what I’m doing while everyone sleeps?

I’m working.

When I say working, it encompasses a multitude of tasks for school.  Of course, I always begin with my to-do list.  This is the list that I write of goals I want to accomplish during my one week off from school.

Here’s my to-do list:
·         Lesson plans for first week back
·         Parent newsletter for January
·         Update website and blog
·         Report cards – compose comments
·         Plan Poetry Project
·         Plan Radio Station Project
·         Plan Informational Text Project
·         Review tutoring materials for student with dyslexia/apraxia

Isn’t this what all teachers do on their first day of winter break?

One of my goals this year was to bring more balance to my life.  I’ve let go of many school responsibilities and focused more on teaching and learning.  I’ve done a pretty good job with this goal.  For me, this to-to list is filled with items that I can't wait to sink my teeth into accomplishing.  

The tasks on my to-do lists are things I love.   It doesn’t feel like work to me.  I have a tendency to take on too much, and the responsibilities that I let go of this year were ones that drained my energy and brought forth too much stress.  Now, I’ve become much more selective before I take on added school responsibilities.  I’ve learned that when I stay focused on teaching, I’m blissfully happy.  My scales are balanced because I'm doing what brings joy to me.  

So, while everyone is sleeping, I’m happily organizing, preparing, reflecting and getting ready for the new challenges 2011 will bring. 

I can’t wait.

Thursday, December 9

The Silence of Reading

I just had one of those incredible moments that brings a teacher close to tears.  Happy tears!

I was sitting in my classroom on this bitterly cold winter morning.  I was not feeling well, and I admit, a bit grouchy.  I was working with students one-on-one during Reading Workshop and hiding my yearnings for winter break.

In between meeting with students, I would grade a paper or two, check my notes for students that I wanted to work with, and even glance over at Twitter on my laptop.  Amidst all of this, I suddenly noticed the silence.  Besides the soft music in the background, there wasn't a sound.

I looked up and saw every one of my students so engaged in the books they were reading, I worried if they were even breathing.  Suddenly, my entire view of the day changed.  This is what matters.  They were reading.  Every student was reading.   Every student was reading a novel they had chosen.  They were barely moving except to turn pages.  Not a sound.  The silence of reading filled the room.
The joy I felt watching them brought tears to my eyes.  This is my second year with this group and when I got them, they were considered to be the toughest group in the school.  Now, they are the example for other classes.  Rather than jump for joy or tell them what I was feeling and interrupt the beauty of the moment, I just watched.

When this period is over, I plan on telling them how magical it was for me to watch them read.  I will ask them to share with the group where they were in their novels.  I will listen and let the moment be filled with joy.

Suddenly, I was warm and giddy without any of my earlier grumpiness.

Friday, December 3

Tell your parent they have to read your blog and comment...

On Thursday night, the #elemchat topic was: Homework: How do we differentiate and make it authentic. It was a lively discussion with lots of sharing of ideas and philosophies.  One of the reason I love moderating #elemchat is because I always learn something new.  Also, during these chats I get to “converse” with educators that I might have missed during the course of a Twitter day.  My PLN (Personal Learning Network) grows and I become a better teacher.

Sometimes after the hour is officially over, the conversation and tweets about the topic continue.  I find responses to the topic on my Tweetdeck hours later.  Friday morning I found this…   

@NancyTeaches I guess all of your students have home computers with great connection (no dial up)?? How fortunate.

I had shared that my class had fallen in love with blogging and my new favorite homework assignment was: tell your parent they have to read your blog and comment.  When I read the tweet above, I was taken aback.  My initial reaction was a rapid heartbeat and visceral.  I thought this person was being “snarky.”  I felt offended.  Here I was presenting my great idea to the #elemchat and in response, I felt as if I were getting a spoonful of  sarcasm. 

Then, I reflected.  (Being mature is such hard work.)

What if I taught in a school where the students didn’t have computers with great connection or didn’t have internet access?  What if the students lived in a house without a computer!

I didn’t even think about this, and more importantly, I take for granted that my students could do the new “fav. assignment.”  Do I even appreciate that I teach in a setting where all of the students have what they need and more?

I don’t know who this Twitter person is, but she taught me an important lesson this morning.  When I share my enthusiasm and ideas, I have a responsibility to be sensitive and think of other educational settings that are not as fortunate as mine.  Within my 140 character limit, I can share more thoughtfully and considerately.  I need to turn off my tunnel vision and look at things with a broader eye.

I need to practice what I preach to my students about commenting on blogs. It is a global audience!

Once again, Twitter helped me become a better teacher, and maybe a better person, too.


Wednesday, November 24

Blogging with Kids - Wish I Started Sooner!

At back to school night this year, I explained to the parents that the fourth graders would be blogging this year.  It took me until this week to get it off the ground and boy, is it soaring.  My only regret is that I didn’t start sooner.  Lesson learned: make the time for technology.

One of my goals this year was to integrate technology more into my teaching.  I often heard myself state that I love technology, but was I using it as much as I could?  I spent time this summer researching an abundance of tools, signed up for what feels like a million different sites, but was I actually using the technology I claimed to embrace?

To be fair, I work at a small school whose teachers don’t use a lot of technology.  I’m pretty much an enigma and the go-to-girl when people have problems with their computers.  Trust me, I don’t know what I’m doing the majority of the time.  I just read help menus really well.  I’m the only one who has their own class website.  When I try to explain my passion for Twitter, well, let’s just say the crickets chirp pretty loudly.  It is amazing how much a person can communicate with a blank stare.  (I do have my mentee signed up and tweeting, though – hooray!)

I had so many goals this year and I was determined to start blogging with the students. My first step was I switched my class website over to iWeb, which made my love of photos/video so much easier and a massive time saver!  I taught the students about podcasts and some kids are actually using them for studying on their iPods. Our weekly Wallwisher is a favorite, too.  What was the hold-up with blogging?

I wasn’t sure where to begin.  I kept seeing so many different sites that other people were using and I had trouble choosing.  I saw that many teachers were using kidblog.org, but I wanted more pizzazz and color for the themes.  I signed up for both wordpress.com and blogger, and created individual blogs for the students.  (Luckily, I have a small class.)  On the other hand, I didn’t want to get involved with email addresses with the kids.  I wanted to control the posting of blogs and the comments.   I admit I have control tendencies, but I also wanted make sure I wasn’t borrowing trouble.

I went back to where I was the most comfortable: iWeb.  I created a new page on our class website and wrote a blog about blogging. I took what they had written in class, typed it and created new “entries” for each of them.  I also put a photo next to each student’s entry.  Technically, they do not have their own blog – they have entries on a page on our class website. However, the look and feel of it shouts “blog.” 

Next, I wrote a comment on each of their blogs. When the students came to school the next day, I showed them what I had done.  It was like Christmas morning.  They were practically pushing me out of the way to start reading and commenting. 

Aside: For some unknown reason to me, if you use Safari as your internet browser, you can’t always leave a comment.  Firexfox and Internet Explorer seemed to be working.  I tweeted this problem on Twitter and no one seems to know why.  I have found if you refresh the browser, the comment will appear.  

When the students went home, they were filled with excitement and actually got their parents to look at our site.  One mom wrote a comment on every student’s blog.  The computer teacher at our school did the same.  Then, @rcantrell, a principal in San Antonio, Texas, left a very detailed and amazing comment on one student’s blog.  The excitement level rose another notch.  All of the students were awe-struck that someone so far away, and a principal, too, took the time to write a comment on a student’s blog.  Wow!  I was impressed, too.  I sent Mr. Cantrell a message thanking him for his time and the gift that he gave to this student. 

To keep the momentum going, I told the students that they could blog anytime, anywhere they wanted.  All they had to do was send me an email and I would put what they wrote on our site.  Well, they all went home and started writing.  Some emailed, some came in with blogs on paper. During our Reading Workshop time, I allowed students to rotate to our class computers to read,  type or comment.  This worked so smoothly that every student now has a second blog ready to go.

Is this the best way to blog with students?  I have no idea.  All I do know is when students are excited about writing; I must be doing something right.  The parents are involved and checking the class website, which is another goal reached. 

I would love to know how other teachers found their way to blogging with students.  Do you have technology support people at your school that can help you?  Have I missed a step along the way?  Is there a gaping hole in my approach that I don’t see?  I’m so willing to learn more.

My only regret is that I didn’t start sooner. 

Sunday, November 21

Asking Questions and Discrimination

My objective: the student will pose probing, elaborate and divergent questions to challenge the validity of print, author stance/point of view, clarify nuances of meaning, and determine the controlling idea or them.  They will eloquently explain how questioning aids comprehension.

Quite a mouthful!  Basically, I wanted them to ask good questions while they were reading. 

In a previous post, I described the various mini lessons I did to encourage good questioning.  As fate would have it, our recent field trip to the Philadelphia Art Museum helped solidify and integrate all we were learning.

While on our tour at the museum, the docent showed us an amazing piece of pottery and told us the story of Dave, the Potter.  During the 1800s in South Carolina, a slave created this masterpiece. Although it was forbidden, Dave not only created amazing pottery, he wrote poems that were carved into his pots.  My fourth graders were fascinated not only by the pot, but found it incredulous that slaves were forbidden to learn how to read and write. 

Once I found out there was a book about Dave the Potter, I ordered it and had it shipped overnight!  The kids couldn’t wait for it to arrive.  (OK… I was just as excited, hence the overnight shipping expense.)

In our social studies curriculum we’ve been learning about colonial Pennsylvania and William Penn.  The students were confused when they learned Penn had slaves, although he felt so strongly in his Quaker beliefs that everyone should be treated fairly.  The topic of slavery and fairness has been an area of focus across our curriculum.  Their questions have been sensitive and insightful.

When the book Dave the Potter by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Bryan Collier, arrived, the students were captivated by the breathtaking illustrations.  Each student generated a list of questions in their journals and we read the book as a class.  Many of our questions were left unanswered, but the students learned that not every question has an answer and wondering and imagining are productive, too.  The memory of actually seeing the pot at the museum made the lesson more powerful.

We jumped forward in history to after the Civil War during the Reconstruction period where the lack of education was one of the biggest hurdles facing the freed men and women.  We read the true story of Virgie Goes to School with Us Boys by Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard and illustrated by E. B. Lewis.   Again, the students were awestruck by the idea that people were denied access to school due to their skin color.  A young girl begs her previously enslaved parents to allow her to go to school with her five brothers.  The book includes an actual photo of the brothers, but sadly, no photo of Virgie.  They had more questions than they could write.

To finish our exploration of questions while we read and to continue the theme of fairness, we read The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson and stunning illustrations by once again E. B. Lewis.  In this book, a mother warns her daughter not to climb over the fence when she plays.  She said, “It wasn’t safe.” The students asked and imagined a wealth of scenarios that would be on the other side and never imagined that white people lived on the other side.  In the book, two girls – one white, one African American, figure out a clever way to play together even though it was not acceptable.  We learned not only about a serious issue, but also about symbolism in literature, specifically that the fence represented not only a dividing of properties, but a division in society. 

The book ends with these lines:
“Someday somebody’s going to come along and knock this old fence down.” Annie said.  And I nodded, “Yeah,” I said. “Someday.”

My goal/objectives during this time was to teach the students the importance of asking questions.  We filled journal pages and had thoughtful, deep and meaningful discussions about all of the stories as well as what we saw at the museum.  I was teaching them to discriminate between the different types of questions (ones that clarify, ones that determine importance, ones that help determine character traits, etc.) 

In the midst of the last lesson I wrote the word discrimination on the board to define what we were learning to do with our questioning techniques.  Then, one of my students said, “Isn’t that what all of the books were about?”

They learned that discrimination is not just recognizing and understanding the difference between one thing and another.  Through our literature, visit to the museum and in class discussions; they learned so much more then how to ask good questions.

They learned about discrimination.  I hope they keep asking questions in every aspect of their lives.

Monday, November 15

Saying Good–bye to a Student

Friday we said good-bye to a student from our class.  I’ve been reflecting on the journey this student and I have traveled.  In a small private school such as ours, losing a student is huge.  However, the decision was in the best interest of the student – not the school.

This young man has had a difficult road.  From the time he was three and in our nursery program, he has struggled.  He has extreme ADHD as well as other learning disabilities.  Each year, he has fallen farther behind and frustrated more.  Due to our declining enrollment, we lost our support services and this student lost his lifeline.

Even in our small setting and with my individualized approach to learning, I knew his needs were not being met.  In our setting, it was as if there was a magnifying glass on him.  He knew he wasn’t learning and was beginning to give up – in fourth grade!  I had to set my ego aside and look at the big picture.

With age, and finally, some maturity (cough, cough) on my part, I’ve come to realize I can’t fix every child.  I was working with this student so much that I was neglecting other students.  As much as I tried to balance it all, I knew I wasn’t being fair.  Also, since I had this student in third grade I knew what his strengths and weaknesses were and the fourth grade traditional curriculum was too much.  A decision had to be made.  Our school’s administrators agreed.

With a great sadness, I met with the parents and broke the news.  Due to the trusting relationship we had built, the meeting went well and I helped guide them through the process of having their son transfer to a public school where he would get all of the services he deserved.  We kept our focus on what was best for their wonderful child. 

The week leading up to the student leaving, I taught the class about time lines.  Each student made a time line of their lives.  Then, on Friday, we shared our time lines and discussed that life never stops changing.  At the end of the day, we wrote good-bye messages to our friend and hugged him good bye.  We will miss him.

While I admit that I can’t fix every child, my teacher’s heart is heavy.  I can’t seem to let go of the feeling that I could have done more. 

Letting go is hard.  Letting go of my ego is even harder.

Wednesday, November 10

Good writing teacher-almost always!

I am a good writing teacher - almost always.  I love to write, so it is easy for me to get excited about teaching writing to my students.  I have fail-proof techniques and tricks that I’ve developed over the years. (I should write them all down – bit of a contradiction that I haven’t done so.) Unfortunately, this week I didn’t do so well.

I use Reading Workshop with my fourth graders.  This is our second year together because I was their third grade teacher and we “looped.”  When they came to me as third graders, they had no idea how to construct a paragraph.  Through hard work and lots of modeling, the students can construct multiple paragraph essays.  All of our writing lessons are integrated with our reading work.  We are successful writers. 

That is, until this past week.  Fantasy stories put the brakes on our momentum.

After reading a fantasy story to the students where we reflected on plot, setting, character, and theme, we explored the various elements of fantasy stories.  Next, I read them a variety of other short fantasy stories and we examined the structure of each.  We were ready to set ourselves up for writing our own stories.  The goal of their fantasy story was to solve a real world problem with a magical solution.  Sounds pretty simple.  They brainstormed, did prewriting and wrote and handed me their first drafts.  Ugh!  No one got it.   They were all over the place and did not achieve the goal of the assignment. 

Where did I go wrong?  It was time to reflect.

Sometimes I worry that students today lack imagination.  Sometimes I worry that they’ve lost some of the magical feelings that make childhood precious.  Were my students incapable of being creative?  This couldn’t be my fault… could it?

So, I went back and looked at how I set them up to write.  Ah-ha!  I found my mistake.  In my desire not to inhibit their creativity, I didn’t give them the usual guidelines to follow.  I had missed a step.  My students expect me to provide them with a structure, and without it, they couldn’t see the big picture.  Their stories were unfocused and lacked a story telling element.  They didn’t see that there needed to be a sequence to the events.  Their result was scattered because I didn’t give them a path to follow. 

The next day I rubbed my hands together –always a sign to them that I was excited to share some news with them.  I told them that we were going back to the beginning.  I admitted that I didn’t explain the task thoroughly so we had to start again.  This time, I had each student write what the problem and the solution would be.  Then, they made a list of transition words to use to help with sequencing and finally, they saw that each paragraph had to have a certain focus.  They were nodding like crazy – they knew what I meant.

The new fantasy stories are amazing.  Many students solved the problem of bothersome siblings with magical devices and wands that made them freeze.  One student came up with a method for dragging her annoying brother into the computer with a magical mouse.  Other students wrote about magical homework machines that did the work for them while others found ways to avoid chores by transforming vacuums into robots.  The creativity oozed and flowed fourth because they understood the structure. 

As a teacher who shouts that she loves to learn, I got a big lesson this past week.  Even though I am confident in my ability to teach writing, my technique can always improve.  I need to scaffold their learning and rely on the foundation I provided.  I can’t release them until they are ready. 

Most importantly, when something doesn’t work, the best place to look is usually inward. 

If I hadn’t, another magical moment might have been lost. 

Monday, November 1

Preparing for Conferences

On a beautiful fall day with crisp leaves blowing and the smell of burning fire places, I locked myself in my basement.  I sat at my desk, surrounded by files, papers, notes and record keeping books and didn’t move for nine hours.  Occasionally, I took breaks to eat, but I brought the food downstairs and ate amidst the chaos.  I was preparing for parent-teacher conferences.

I am an incredibly organized person.  I have systems in place for every part of my teaching.  Why does it take me so long to prepare for each 25 minute conference?  I don’t know how to do less.  I have two goals for each conference.

My first goal is to thoroughly present information to the parent.  I approach each conference with a structure that paints a picture.  I want the parent to understand each aspect of their child’s academic performance.  I remember sitting at one of my own children’s conferences (a million years ago) and the teacher said, “She is doing well.  Any questions?)  I communicate specific strengths in layman’s terms and gently explain deficits.  More importantly, I describe areas that concern me and what my plan of action will be to remediate.  If I don’t know (GASP!), I admit it and explain that I will keep digging and pulling other resources until I figure it out.

I treat each conference as if it were my own child.  What did I want to know?

 The second goal for me is to review all that has occurred during the first seven weeks of school.  What has worked?  What isn’t working?  Have I missed anything regarding a specific skill, for example, how is Stan Student doing with main idea? What are my immediate and long term goals?  I need to paint a picture for myself.

By immersing myself in the progress of each student, I am a better teacher.  This check-in insures that I am not missing anything.  I create written reports (both scores and anecdotal notes) for the parent to take with them.  Who could remember everything I say?  They also have a written record of concerns I may have about their child.  (We give out official report cards later.)

When the parent arrives, I always thank them for the privilege of working with their child.  I always begin by sharing a story that reflects something interesting or special that the child has done within the classroom.  It could be as simple as a random act of kindness. 

I ask them to interrupt me at any point if I’m going too fast or they don’t understand.  If we run out of time, I schedule more time.  Nothing else matters but sharing their child’s progress.  Granted, some conferences can be stressful, especially when there are learning issues that need to be addressed.  By creating an atmosphere of trust and camaraderie, we can focus on what is most important. 

So, I missed a beautiful fall day, but it will be worth it on conference day and all the days that follow. 

Saturday, October 23

The Funeral of Mr. Careless

So, I was feeling frustrated.  My class, who I love dearly and know well (we were together for third grade and “looped” and I have them for fourth grade) we’re making the most careless errors in all areas.  It seems as if this monster had taken over our classroom. 

One of my strengths as a teacher is personal reflection.  I monitor my teaching daily.  Did that lesson work?  Did I move to quickly?  Did I activate their prior knowledge?  Did I meet my goals?  What could I have done that would have been more thorough?  I’m my own worst critic, but I constantly strive to improve.  However, this “careless thing” that was happening was growing and growing. 

I nagged.  I pleaded.  I begged.  Nothing was working.  My students know that my philosophy is quality, not quantity.  If a student can’t finish an assignment, I evaluate why and what happened.  I’m the teacher at our school who will NEVER keep a student in from recess.  It makes my skin crawl for adults to expect a child to go the entire day without a break.  Imagine losing your prep periods and not having a break!  (Sorry, but this is a hot button for me.)  So, why were my students making so many careless errors?  I know I wasn’t asking them to work too quickly.

Next, I did error analysis.  The types of errors were copying the problem wrong in math.  The errors in written work were careless spelling errors.  Homework errors were from not reading the homework log.  All of these were preventable.  They were not related to learning concepts.  Something needed to change.  Without thinking, Mr. Careless was created.

Some of my best and most creative ideas come spontaneously.  I could never have planned for this.  During one of my rants about carelessness, (Yes, I am very dramatic in the classroom) I told the students that Mr. Careless had moved in and he wasn’t welcome.  For a day or so, each time I returned work, I talked about how powerful Mr. Careless was and that we had to “kick him to the curb.”  Well, imagine what happened next!  I said he had to die.  I didn’t plan on saying it; it just slipped out. 

Death is a scary topic.  To cover the moment, (and the potential flood of emails from parents) I said we needed a funeral for Mr. Careless.  We needed to say good bye and make sure he never came back.  An idea was born.  We planned a funeral.

Our funeral would be on Monday in order to properly prepare and reflect on why Mr. Careless had to be buried.  The students wrote good bye letters that listed the reasons he had to go and supported their thinking through examples.  They described their feelings – some students were really angry about Mr. Careless.  Next, we planned the food menu (every good funeral has a good selection of food) created his tombstone and practiced our fluency with friends to prepare for the eulogies.  Of course, we were going to make a movie!

The day of the funeral arrived and the students loved the flowers and candles.  Each one read their good bye letter to Mr. Careless and placed it in the “casket.”  (We painted a shoe box.)  We worked on being appropriately sad, but the giggles took over.  We had a special invited guest (the principal) who attended and paid their respects.  Their favorite part was holding the tissues and pretending to cry.  (I love that they mimic my dramatic tendencies.)  It was a great funeral.

The good news is the parents loved the idea and I was flooded with supportive emails.  Since the funeral, there has been an improvement in avoiding careless errors.  If someone has a careless error, we laugh about Mr. Careless haunting us.  Admittedly, careless errors have not disappeared, but we created a very special memory and had a blast.  I also turned it into a multi-paragraph writing assignment. Most importantly, I modeled for the students that quality work is important in a very fun way.