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, but I wanted more pizzazz and color for the themes.  I signed up for both 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.