Thursday, April 30, 2009

More Fun Than Should Be Allowed

I took a step back today and let my kids explore with the thinkblocks. I've demonstrated with them a couple of times but I hadn't put them in their hands yet. So, today we just spent about 15 minutes playing around with them. Responsive Classroom describes this as 'guided discovery' (pdf). The students couldn't wait to get their hands on the blocks. They manipulated them in as many ways as they could imagine, attaching them to one another, putting them inside one another, lining them up, etc.

When we put them away I asked the students what they noticed about the blocks. They had so many thoughts it took a bit to get things under control enough to make our list of ideas. I expected some of the things on this list but I was surprised by others they mentioned.

I have to note that one of our free choice options is a basket of magnets and various small metal items and things. This has been a favorite station all year and they have noticed a lot of things about magnets. Then, earlier this week we read a big book, How Magnets Work, because we are studying explanation texts. The kids are now utterly fascinated by magnets. So they noticed that some sides of the thinkblocks push other thinkblocks away and other sides attract them. They realized and were able to explain that it was because the two poles are the same.

In second grade we have a state science standard about magnets:
The student will investigate and understand that natural and artificial magnets have certain characteristics and attract specific types of metals. Key concepts include
a) magnetism, iron, magnetic/nonmagnetic, poles, attract/repel; and
b) important applications of magnetism including the magnetic compass.

I think my kids are in good shape!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

We've Come A Long Way, Baby

It is hard for me to believe that these kids are the same ones that were in my class way back in August. They have come so far.

This week I watched one little girl playing with some magnetic letters during free choice time. She wasn't just messing around with them, she was creating a long list of words. She created my full name first. Then she continued with words like frame, outside, and myself. She just made any and all words that she could and all were spelled correctly. I loved that she spent her free choice time making words.

Later the same day another girl pulled out her library book, Egg to Chick. She has been reading it obsessively for days now. I have to note that it does not look like an exceptionally engaging book; the illustrations are quite basic, the layout is dull. That does not stop her however, from grabbing me frequently to share something new she has learned. "Ms. Orr, did you know that people come from eggs, too? Look!"

Friday, April 24, 2009

It IS About Me

Wednesday morning my students were especially squirrely. (As it turns out the problem was school-wide come Thursday.) By the time we were half an hour in the day I had sent three students back to their seats because they couldn't appropriately participate in our lessons.

At one point, as they were all sitting at their tables, I realized that those three were three of the brightest students in my classroom. At that moment it hit me that it is much more likely that the problem was me, not the kids.

I have a lot of thinking to do about my classroom management, structure of our daily schedule, and engaging my students in the lessons.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Groundbreaking Progress Report

I spent last Saturday with the 5th and 2nd grade teams from my school and one other in our district learning about a new progress report they will be beta testing. (I was there because my former principal is heading up this project and she knows my very strong feelings about grades. She invited me to join them and give my feedback.)

This progress report is being created by our district and the folks at Thinkworks. They created the thinkblocks that many of us have blogged about recently. I've got a couple of pages of notes and thoughts from the day and other random ideas swirling around in my head. It may take a while for it all to settle and truly make sense to me, much less anyone else!

However, the gist of the new progress report is that it will include traditional content areas (math, reading, art, etc), social/citizenship skills (uses time wisely, works well with others, etc) and the patterns of thinking from the Thinkworks folks. This much I understood before Saturday.

The progress report will not have any letter grades. That's worth repeating in case it didn't really sink in, there will be no letter grades. Everything will be scored on a scale of 1 to 3. 1 means 'needs more time to approach standard.' 2 means 'approaches standard.' 3 means 'meets standard.' There is also what is being called a 3E, 'extends standard.'

Those scores will be used for the patterns of thinking in the same way as the traditional content areas. This will be the progress report for grades 1-6 in our district in a few years (if all goes well). I can't begin to describe how exciting I think this is.

I'm impressed with the elimination of letter grades. For years now I've felt that letter grades do little or nothing to communicate with parents about their children's learning. If that's the goal of a progress report I think it comes up short. I'm also very, very impressed with the idea of communicating progress on the patterns of thinking.

We talked a little on Saturday about students who would be successful in the patterns of thinking but not in the traditional content areas. I immediately thought of a student of mine from 5 years ago. He had a learning disability and was almost completely unable to decode text. As a result, he was convinced he was stupid. However, when I read a book aloud his comments and questions were the most insightful in our class. I'm not sure if it was his learning disability or his lack of confidence that made school so difficult for him, but I am sure that he deserved better. I think if he had been able to see his strengths on a progress report like this one it would have made a world of difference for him.

(I don't think this post makes nearly as much sense as I would like it to. For that, I apologize. I'll try to be more coherent in the future.)

Friday, April 17, 2009

A Crystal Ball

Having taught fifth and fourth grades for years and now teaching first grade, I look at these kids and wonder what they will be when they reach the end of their elementary years. I have many predictions and some concerns.

One little girl in particular concerns and fascinates me. Even in kindergarten she was 'too cool for school.' She has problems with friendships because she can be bossy and mean. At other times she can be kind and helpful. She is bright, excited about learning, and, in many ways, a joy to have in class.

I have to wonder, though, if she will be a 'mean girl' when she is a bit older. She seems to show the signs for it. And, if so, what could I be doing now to keep that from happening?

Is it possible for us to control that in a child? Is that outcome set already? I don't like the idea that I can't 'fix' this and make sure that my students grow up to be kind, generous people. At the same time, I find it overwhelming to think I might have control over such things.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

We Need to Look Closely

I know I'm lucky to teach at a fabulous school with a dedicated staff and darling children. I also know (although I do tend to forget sometimes) that my school is not the norm. I've worked for two amazing principals who have helped form an outstanding school.

That said, I still struggle with the idea that our educational system is as bad as it is rumored to be. I'm aware that there are many awful schools, especially those serving our most disadvantaged students. I do believe that there are many things we can and should do better in our schools. I'm just not fully convinced that it means our schools are failing our students, at least not across the board.

I was struck by Mark Pullen's recent post after Secretary Duncan called for longer school days, weeks, and years.

Is it really more accurate to say that some of our schools are failing some of our students? Or is it really a societal failure? Or a parental failure? Or even a prenatal failure, in some cases?

In addition to carefully pondering each policy idea coming from Mr. Duncan, I urge teachers everywhere to reconsider their tacit acceptance of the notion that our schools are a complete failure.

I think we need to be willing to carefully analyze everything about our educational system, but as we separate the wheat from the chaff, let's not throw them both out.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


I had never heard this song before (I only listen to NPR on the radio) but my special little friend sings it all the time. So as you listen, you have to picture a six year old boy who is socially awkward singing "I want to move it move it. I want to move it move it." again and again and again, at appropriate and inappropriate times.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Work Hard Be Nice (Final Thoughts, Hopefully)

I've finished Jay Mathews's Work Hard Be Nice. (previous posts) I'm really glad I read the book, something that will please Mathews, I'm sure. I genuinely enjoyed the book. I'm exceptionally impressed with Levin and Feinberg and all they have done. They are two of the hardest working individuals of whom I'm aware. They deserve a lot of credit.

That said, I still have some issues with KIPP and the view of KIPP.

1. It's all about the test scores. I had this same issue with Geoffrey Canada's work in Harlem when I read Whatever It Takes. In some ways I don't blame Levin, Feinberg, or Canada. They are playing the game as it stands in our country today. I do hold the media somewhat responsible, however. In the chapter near the end of Work Hard Be Nice in which Mathews address the critiques of KIPP he focuses almost exclusively on test scores. There is a bit about drop-out rates and demographics, but not much. If what we present to the public is all about test scores, that is all that will matter. There are so many other important things to consider.

2. When KIPP is discussed in the media (main stream, blogs, everywhere) the focus is on the wrong things, in my opinion. The focus is always on the longer day, week, and year and on the skill and drill part of the instruction. If Mathews has made an accurate presentation of KIPP, beyond the schools Levin and Feinberg started originally, then there is much more that is critical here. The cultural events to which they took students as well as the huge trips each year are rarely discussed. I would consider those aspects a huge part of what made KIPP work for students.

3. The skill and drill part of the instruction. I don't believe that all the instruction is this way, but it is a part. It seems to me that KIPP teachers are working so hard to bring their students up to grade level and able to pass the tests that they sacrifice deeper understanding for broader skills. It is unfortunate that students reach middle school and that choice has to be made because they are behind, but I still don't believe in memorization without understanding (such as rolling their numbers for multiplication).

4. I don't believe that KIPP is the savior for our inner cities. KIPP administrators get rid of teachers quickly if they don't cut it. That's not a bad thing. However, if enough good teachers were out there already we wouldn't be in this position. Not every inner city child will be able to have a teacher of the caliber of KIPP teachers, there just aren't enough fabulous teachers out there. That's an issue that needs to be addressed in some way and it is a critically important one.

5. I don't believe most middle class parents would want their kids to attend KIPP. I don't believe they would want the discipline level that KIPP employs, at least in the beginning. I don't believe they would want the skill and drill part of the instruction. That makes me wonder why we believe that disadvantaged kids should have things that we wouldn't want for our own children.

I have two close friends who taught at a KIPP school in Houston. In addition, I chatted with a bunch of teachers and students on the metro many years ago from a Houston KIPP school. They were here on their annual trip to DC and we just happened to be on the same train. I noticed the shirts and heard the chants and took the opportunity to talk with them.

I don't want to get rid of KIPP. I just want to know that we are looking at it closely, considering the positives and negatives, and moving forward from there. I'm bothered by the presentation of KIPP as THE answer. That's how Mathews presents it here. The book is worth reading, but not unless one is willing to go beyond it to learn about KIPP.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Work Hard Be Nice (Continued)

I'm about 2/3 of the way through the book now and I have a huge amount of respect for Levin and Feinberg (the founders of KIPP). I still disagree with many of the ways they chose to run KIPP (more in a post soon) but I am amazed by them. They worked (probably work still) harder than just about anyone I've ever known and they truly want what is best for kids.

However, an anonymous commenter on my previous post said
Do you have kids, Jenny? If so, or if you did, would you send them to a KIPP school?

I think it's a great question. Honestly, it's one I've been wondering about Jay Mathews. His son is grown now, but I wonder if he would have wanted him to go to a KIPP school.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Jay Mathew's Work Hard Be Nice

I've finally started reading it. I'm about a third of the way through and so far, I'm feeling more positively towards the founders of the KIPP program and even less positively towards the Teach for America program.

I'm sure I'll post more thoughts as I move on in the book, but I didn't want to forget these early impressions. Teach for America comes across as a rich kid toy, almost. Acceptance into it seems to be seen as an honor, but attending the summer institute seems less important to the pre-service teachers than partying in the evening does. Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg got out of TFA about what they put into it. However, they already felt strongly and passionately about educating disadvantaged students. All TFA did for them was give them an easy place to start.

Levin and Feinberg are smart, dedicated young men. They believe in what they are doing and are trying their best for their students. I'm still not completely sold on KIPP in general, but I am impressed with them. There's still a lot of reading for me to do, so we'll see how that goes.

One of my biggest issues at the moment is with Jay Mathews writing a book that is so pro-KIPP. He has every right to write anything he wishes, but it makes it harder for me to take him seriously as an education reporter. Maybe as I progress more it will seem like less of a cheerleading for KIPP and more balanced. That doesn't mean that I think it has to be equally positive and negative, but so far everything has been overwhelmingly positive. Even when Levin or Feinberg have made mistakes Mathews has immediately shown how it turned out well in the end or what they learned from it. That's great, but it's hard for me to believe that everything was so close to perfect. I'm skeptical that Mathews is writing this through a reporter's eye rather than a supporter's eye.

Again, I'm only a third of the way through the book so my attitudes may change drastically or not at all. It remains to be seen.

Friday, April 03, 2009

The Case of the Feisty First Grader Continued

Yesterday I posted about the beginning of my intersession class.

Once we started getting the hang of what makes a mystery, we got to move on to some really fun stuff. We spent one day looking at secret codes. We read The Mystery of King Karfu which includes a secret code. I stopped at the first spot with code and had them decode it (I had made copies for them). Then we continued reading. At the end there's another section with code that I had them solve. It was great because it's a recipe (it says to mash the grapes and spread on bread, mash the peanuts and spread on bread, fold and eat) and the kids had to figure out what it would make. We did a couple of other activities with secret codes, one requiring addition and subtraction and one I created with wingdings. The kids could then write their own secret messages to one another. I would like to have done something with disappearing ink, just using lemon juice and such, but I'm afraid to get involved in using an iron to make it show up. If anyone has a safe, easy way to make it show up, I'd love to know.

The next day we studied fingerprinting. We read The Great Paper Caper, in which the bear's paw print identifies him as the culprit. Then we took our own fingerprints, using ink pads. The best part of the day was dusting for fingerprints. I had tried it before class and not been able to make it work. The kids (and eventually me) were able to make it happen!

The last activity we did was to create paintings with our fingerprints, Ed Emberly style.

On another day we looked at wanted posters. We read and The Secret of the Circle-K Cave and Chicken Little by Steven Kellogg. I know it's not a mystery, but it has a great wanted poster in it. We looked at a bunch of historic wanted posters so that we could brainstorm a list of the sorts of things one finds on a wanted poster (picture, reward, crime, name, etc.). Then we brainstormed a list of possible first grade 'crimes'. I didn't want any killing on these posters! I took a picture of each child and they created their own wanted poster. It might have been their favorite activity all week.

If I get to teach this class again I'd like to spend one day looking at handwriting, but I couldn't find a good mystery for it yet. I also want to do something with puzzles of various sorts. As usual my ideas all come together in the midst of things rather than ahead of time!

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Case of the Feisty First Grader

That's the name of my intersession class for this two weeks. (See bottom of post for explanation of intersession if you are unfamiliar with it.)

We're reading lots of mysteries and doing some really fun activities with them. We started the two weeks just looking at the different components of a mystery; detective, setting, clues, crime, victim, suspects, solution, etc. We read several different mysteries and the kids painted these different parts.

We spent a few days just reading lots of mysteries and identifying the different parts. We read Ducks Disappearing which was great because it's not a typical mystery story. It's about a little boy who notices some ducklings disappearing at a hotel and he solves the mystery. We also read Helpful Betty Solves a Mystery and had some great discussions about whether or not Betty was a detective, whether or not she was helpful, and whether or not she actually solved a mystery. We also read a High-Rise Private Eyes mystery, because those are my personal favorites.

After that we started working on observing. During our morning meeting time we played the game in which one student leaves the room, another student leads some movements (clapping, snapping, tapping legs, etc.) and the first student has to figure out who the leader is. Another game we played was to have one student leave the room and change one thing (untie a shoe, turn a shirt around). Upon return the kids had to figure out what had changed. We also had a guest come in for a couple of minutes just to say hello. After he left the kids drew him (I took a picture so we could compare). We read Cam Jansen mysteries while we talked about observing.

The other observing activities we did included having students build something with pattern blocks, show a partner, cover it up, and have their partner try to recreate it. I also put out a tray of small items (paper clip, pencil, block, etc.) then took one thing away and they had to identify what was missing.

During this time of observing we kept talking about the parts of a mystery in the stories we were reading.

I'll share more about the rest of the class soon. It's been a blast.

My school is on a 'modified calendar' year. We start in late July, rather than in early September. We take breaks after each quarter, in October, January, and March. During those times we offer an optional intersession. Students can come and take two classes (one morning and one afternoon) that are a lot of fun. We have cooking, tennis, scrapbooking, art, author studies, music, etc. sorts of classes. We can teach for extra money or we hire 'outsiders' - retired teachers, interested community members, and such.