Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Complications to Learning

My daughter chipped a tooth during her swim lesson last night. She swam right into the wall and chipped off nearly half of one of her front, permanent teeth. It hurt, but not enough that she was willing to leave her swim lesson early. However, I took her to the dentist this morning and we couldn't get it fixed. She was terrified of what might happen and everything seemed to hurt her (I can't say how much really hurt and how much was the fear). It was quite a traumatic experience for her and for me.

Once back at school I had a lot of trouble focusing on my students. I was drained and still stressed about the tooth. I would guess she felt similarly.

A student of mine stopped me in the hall as we were heading to the dentist to tell me that her dog was gone. She was teary. I called a counselor who met with her first thing this morning. But I feel pretty confident that she's not doing her best learning today either.

Neither of these issues are life-shattering. We likely will hardly remember them in years to come. But they are impacting the learning happening here.

Too often when we discuss education and education policy we lose sight of the fact that students are people (as are teachers). We see numbers and forget there are faces, families, emotions, and histories behind each and every one of them. The numbers should be secondary to the people.

Why I Hate Homework

I've had two conversations in recent days with parents of kindergarteners. One is a good friend who works in higher education who contacted me because her five-year-old daughter was in tears over her fear that she would get a bad grade on her reading group homework (not assigned by her kindergarten teacher but by a gifted-and-talented specialist). The other is a mom whose son is in my daughter's swimming class. He, last week over spring break, had to write a book report.

Hearing from the first mom about her daughter infuriated me. I don't believe in homework. I don't really believe in grades. Grading reading group homework for a kindergartener goes against everything I believe. It seems as though the intention is to shape a child who hates to read. I know this mom will follow up with this teacher about her concerns. I'll be curious to hear what happens.

The other mom was only mildly frustrated. Her son had not really had any homework all year (yea!). When I shared that there is no research to prove that homework is beneficial in elementary school she seemed visibly relieved. She shared with me that she had withheld some things that her son enjoys last week to get him to complete this book report. She was frustrated by having had to do so. I told her that is one of the reasons I don't believe in homework for kids so young.

Most teachers structure the school day so that kids are learning from the time they arrive until they leave. They get a break to eat lunch with their friends and maybe fifteen to twenty minutes to play at recess. Otherwise, they are working hard. Most adults don't spend that high a percentage of their working day working hard. Then they go home and do the things they enjoy, not work someone else has assigned to them. Why do we treat kids so differently?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Judging or Working Together

As a political liberal I'm struggling right now. I made a recent resolution to myself to be less judgmental. Being less judgmental requires that I be more open-minded, something I hope I already am, at least to some extent.

Open-mindedness is a challenge in some areas. Bad drivers drive me nutty. I'm trying to recognize reasons for their driving. Some clothing choices seem insane and I'm working to remember that what others wear matters not one whit to me.

Education, however, is the area that poses the greatest challenge. It is nigh on impossible for me to see another point of view in this arena. Chris Lehman, a man I greatly admire, has a fabulous post about having conversations, real discussions, about education today. His frustration with conservatives' rhetoric on education is clear. I completely agree.

But, how do we have those conversations? If we, folks like Chris and folks like me trying to be less judgmental, attempt to be open-minded but the other side takes a hard line, how do we achieve any meaningful dialogue? It feels like we're continually compromising while the other side gives nothing. As a result we give inch after inch until we've lost a mile. How do we move forward that way?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande

My parents recently loaned me The Checklist Manifesto. I enjoyed the book and am looking forward to reading more of his books. While I didn't get any big epiphanies about education while reading this, a bit about their pilot struck me. Gawande worked with a WHO team to create a checklist for surgeries around the world. They tested the checklist at hospitals in wealthy and third-world situations. He describes a couple of sites:

"My team and I hit the road, fanning out to visit the pilot sites as the checklist got under way. I had never seen surgery performed in so many different kinds of settings. The contrasts were even starker than I had anticipated and the range of problems was infinitely wider.
In Tanzania, the hospital was two hundred miles of sometimes one-lane dirt roads from Dar es Salaam, and flooding during the rainy season cut off supplies - such as medications and anesthetic gases - often for weeks at a time. There were thousands of surgery patients, but just five surgeons and four anesthesia staff. None of the anesthetists had a medical degree. The patients' families supplied most of the blood for the blood bank, and when that wasn't enough, staff members rolled up their sleeves. They conserved anesthetic supplies by administering mainly spinal anesthesia - injections of numbing medication directly into the spinal canal. They could do operations under spinal that I never conceived of. They saved and resterilized their surgical gloves, using them over and over until holes appeared. They even made their own surgical gauze, the nurses and anesthesia staff sitting around an old wood table at teatime each afternoon cutting bolts of white cotton cloth to size for the next day's cases.
In Delhi, the charity hospital was not as badly off as the Tanzanian site or hospitals I'd been to in rural India. There were more supplies. The staff members were better trained. But the volume of patients they were asked to care for in this city of thirteen million was beyond comprehension. The hospital had seven fully trained anesthetists, for instance, but they had to perform twenty thousand operations a year. To provide a sense of how ludicrous this is, our New Zealand pilot hospital employed ninety-two anesthetists to manage a similar magnitude of surgery. Yet, for all the equipment shortages, power outages, waiting lists, fourteen-hour days, I heard less unhappiness and complaining from the surgical staff in Delhi than in many American hospitals I've been to."

The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande p. 146-147

Reading this I was reminded of the differences in schools around our country (not even to begin to think of schools around the world). If you could choose a place for surgery, you wouldn't choose the ones in Delhi or Tanzania. Just as if you could choose any school for your child, you wouldn't choose ones in our urban cities. The difference is, we can control this. So far, we just don't.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Spring Break Learning

This morning my daughters and I spent a couple of hours working in the 'garden' in our backyard. I say 'garden' because I'm no gardener so it's pretty pathetic. We pulled up lots of weeds and planted a few perennials. I only plant perennials because I only work in the garden once in a blue moon. In those two hours we learned more about plants and bugs than most students do during complete units on those topics. Next week my students will be back working in the 'garden' we are trying to create at school. I won't need to teach units on plants or earthworms if we spend some time each week out there.

Like gardening I don't enjoy cooking. However, after a fabulous banana pudding milkshake at Chick-fil-a last weekend I had the urge to make banana pudding, something I've never done before. The girls and I decided we would make something new each day this week. Sunday we searched for recipes that interested us and yesterday we went grocery shopping. We made Peach Punch and Banana Pudding yesterday. Today we'll be making dinner. We're learning about temperatures, ways foods mix, fractions, cleaning up, and who knows what else.

We also have four little chicks living at our house temporarily. We got them from a farm and they will return to the farm when they become more chicken than chick. The girls have been taking pictures of them and have now created a blog to document our chicks. Most of the work has been done by our oldest, but the little one is pretty excited about it. The first thing our oldest daughter said when she woke up this morning was, "Chickie Chicks. Can I work on it?" I handed her my computer. She's always loved to write but this has been a whole new experience.

We're doing plenty of fluffy stuff for spring break as well. Just yesterday we went to see Gnomeo and Juliet. Tomorrow we're planning to go swimming. I didn't set out for spring break to be a serious learning experience, but it's turning out that way.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Blogs Worth Inspecting

I realized this evening that many of the blogs I most look forward to reading weren't on my blogroll. So, I've updated it.

I've finally added Science Goddess to my roll, something I should have done at least two years ago.

Kathy Cassidy has been a fabulous online mentor for me and is another who should have been on my list years ago.

Doyle is a teacher I've come to greatly respect and enjoy his writing. The man says what he thinks and is always thoughtful.

This year Mr. Chase has been writing regularly and brilliantly.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Field Trip Fun

We took our first graders on a field trip to the Smithsonian's Museum of American History today (and yesterday - we split into two groups). I was excited about this trip because it meant we got the kids into D.C. Our kids live fewer than 15 miles outside of the city, but many have never been there. Just the chance to drive up past the Pentagon, over the Potomac River and past the monuments is worth the trip to me.

I visited the museum last weekend, briefly, to lay out a basic plan. It focused on understanding past and present, one of our first grade social studies objectives.

There are probably a lot of things we could have done differently/better for this trip, but I'm happy with how it went. I created pages with photos I took at the museum and questions to prompt the kids' thinking. My kids started off using these pages a lot but as we went on they were more interested in talking to each other and the teachers about what they were seeing. That was fine with me. The papers were designed to be there if they wanted them or to be ignored if they didn't.

The other thing I did was take four cameras with us, two digital and two flip (R.I.P.). I have them on lanyards so the kids can wear them around their necks and I don't have to worry (as much) about them being dropped. Today I handed the cameras to four students with the direction to take a few pictures or some video and then pass them on. I feel pretty confident everyone had time with at least one camera during our visit. I haven't watched the videos carefully yet but will be posting some of their work soon.

We took an escalator up one level and I was surprised to find that some of my students were really uncertain about it. I don't know if they had ever been on one before. I found myself running down the up escalator several times to give a hand to students who were unwilling/unable to step on the escalator. We did all make it up though!

After almost two hours in the museum and visiting four exhibits, we headed out onto The Mall for a picnic lunch. We were lucky to have a fabulous day. After lunch I set my kids up to play Duck, Duck, Goose while waiting for the bus. They loved it, much more than I expected. Soon, kids from other classes were joining them. We ended up with nearly 40 kids playing before I pulled my class out for a quick picture in front of the Washington Monument.

The only sad part of this experience for me is that tomorrow is the last day before spring break and I'm out for a root canal. We won't be able to really process this wonderful field trip until more than a week after it happened.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Schools Can't Do Everything

While I've been out of my classroom (thanks to a fabulous intern) I have been involved in a number of conversations about students who are having difficulty. Not being confined to one's room for the majority of the day offers many opportunities to actually talk to other teachers.

Anyway, I find myself increasingly frustrated with the expectations put onto schools.

One child, a very bright young'un, is having serious trouble being in school. This child is rolling around on the floor, sobbing in a corner, and otherwise struggling. After a meeting with a parent, the teacher still didn't have a clear reason for this behavior. However, this child and a slightly older sibling are having many problems with one another apparently. That may or may not be a cause, but the parent is concerned about it. We can't really address that problem here. It's possible these problems are significant enough for both children that they would benefit from counseling.

Another child has had academic and behavior issues for some time. This little one and the mother were the only ones in the family in this country for some time. In the last year, an older sibling has joined them from their country. Not surprisingly, this has been a challenge for the little one. Again, some sort of counseling would very likely be beneficial here.

In middle class families, these issues would exist as well, but the resources for counseling are more likely to be available. Yet again, children living in poverty are expected to achieve at the same level as their middle class peers regardless of their lives outside of school. When will we recognize that we need to address emotional issues, lack of stability in housing and employment, uncertainty about food, access to enriching activities and who knows what else? Our children deserve better.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Aim for Better

Why does higher standards always seem to mean harder rather than better? We seem to have decided, as a society, that if kids can do things at a younger age it is a sign of strong achievement.

I don't buy it.

Many people would be impressed if my first graders were adding two and three digit numbers. They would be wowed to see them measuring items with rulers and yardsticks. First graders identifying complicated fractions would make folks proud. But not me.

I want my first graders to truly understand two and three digit numbers before they add them. I want to know that they comprehend different ways to measure and the need to start at a certain point and end at a certain point. Understanding that fractions are equal parts of a whole is more important to me than being able to write two-sevenths properly.

I believe we do our students a disservice when we push them higher and higher without being sure they got the depth necessary. I'd love to see a study comparing young children who received the time and support to deeply understand concepts compared to students who were pushed to learn more and more and more. I'll put my money on those kids with the deep foundation.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Another Bit of Fun

I'm a firm believer that teachers should videotape themselves teaching and watch it every once in a while. It can be painful, even when the teaching is fabulous. But it's powerful.

That said, having someone else record me and my class and then having it posted for all to view is exceptionally scary. But also powerful.

If you are interested in how VoiceThread can look in a primary classroom, you can see us using it during a social studies lesson. I don't think it's the best example of VoiceThread, but the kids enjoyed it and we learned a lot together.

Recent Readings

Last week I read What Can Principals of PLCs Learn from Handwashing? by Bill Ferriter. It's possible it struck such a chord with me because it is quoting from a book by Atul Gawande, whose book The Checklist Manifesto I am in the midst of reading. His main point is that principals should be talking to and listening to their teachers.
And the failure that I see the most frequently is school leaders who mandate new practices from the principal’s office—collaborative meetings, SMART goal writing, data collection and analysis, identifying essential objectives—without ever listening to their teachers.
In my mind it doesn't matter if we're discussing PLCs, kiss and ride routines, lunch schedules, recess behavior, or anything else, principals should be talking to and listening to their teachers. It is astounding to me how often those of us 'in the trenches' of education are ignored by those making decisions at every level.

Just this morning Valerie Strauss of The Answer Sheet posted a piece written by Todd Farley. He worked for over a decade in the standardized testing business and has written a book, Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry. He explores concerns about an industry that seems to have complete control of many educational dollars and decisions.
For the last 10 years in this country we’ve regularly seen standardized tests results that can’t be believed. Still, the United States seems to be heading towards taking the decisions about American education out of the hands of American educators and instead placing that sacred trust in the welcoming arms of an industry run entirely without oversight and populated completely with for-profit companies chasing billions of dollars in business.
Right or wrong, we need to be asking more questions about what we are doing in education today.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

An Unwanted Guest

Life has been exciting at our school in a totally new way this week. We've got a unexpected little friend wandering our fields, parking lot, and, well, pretty much anywhere it wants.This first picture was taken from my car as my daughter and I arrived at school. The fox was standing out front of our school, right near our library, and, if you look closely you'll see, carrying a squirrel in its mouth.

It has been around since the beginning of the week. We are concerned for a couple of reasons. One, it does not have any fear of people or cars. None. More significantly, on Monday, a teacher workday for us, some children were playing on school grounds. It is not certain what happened, but it appears that one child tried to pet the fox. The fox either bit or scratched the child. The child was more shocked than hurt as the wound was not deep or large, but did require a trip to the hospital for rabies shots.

Our school is nestled in a neighborhood, surrounded by homes. All of these pictures were taken while standing in our school parking lot. Many of our students walk to and from school, so we are working with animal control to ensure their safety. I spent about half an hour this morning, as students were arriving at school, on 'fox watch' while we waited for animal control to arrive. Unfortunately, the fox managed to continue to elude us.

We have been unable to set traps because they would be open traps which would be dangerous to our students.So, on goes the saga...

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Indepedent Readers

As an absurdly overcrowded school* everyone has duty sometimes in the mornings. Classroom teachers only have it once a week or once every two weeks. Others, specialists, instructional assistants, and such have duty at least once a week.

As a first grade teacher I have duty in the library. Our librarian goddess opens the library for about half an hour every morning. Kids can check out books, use the netbooks, play with puppets or puzzles, or draw. Just about anything they want. By the end of the open library time the room is packed. There are easily fifty kids crammed in there.

This morning I helped a couple of girls find books to check out. Honestly, most of the kids are doing things unrelated to checking out books so I don't help with this process too often. The first girl, a third grader, was looking for books by Louis Sachar. The Marvin Redpost series is too easy for her but we managed to find There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom. She checked it out, along with several other titles.

The second girl, a second grader, was looking for books to read to her four-year-old brother. She wanted books without too many words so he could try reading them. We grabbed Barnyard Banter by Denise Fleming. Then she told me he likes books about ducks and farms. She already had Duck at the Door so, although there are no ducks or farms, I suggested a Max and Ruby book by Rosemary Wells. She loved the idea. There were none on the shelf but we did find a McDuff book by the same author. On the cart, waiting to be shelved, we found two Max and Ruby books. She left with close to a dozen books, mostly to read to her little brother.

While these girls needed my help, they had a plan as readers and knew exactly what they wanted. I think many kids get to middle school without the sense of themselves as readers that these girls have now. It was a wonderful way to start a day.

*Our school has about 850 students now. When I started thirteen years ago we had fewer than 500 students. We have added a modular building (temporary but more permanent than trailers) with ten classrooms and bathrooms. We have nine classrooms in trailers as well as ten other trailers serving as offices for specialists. However, our gym, library, and cafeteria are all the same size they were fifteen years ago. We only have three sets of boys and girls bathrooms (as well as one single hallway bathroom and bathrooms in every kindergarten classroom and about half the first grade classrooms). In another year, a new elementary school will open which will impact our enrollment. We're not sure yet by how much.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Challenges of a Title I School

As I'm sure I have mentioned, I'm not currently in my classroom. I have a wonderful intern (student teacher) doing her independent teaching at the moment. This morning she came to find me in the midst of their language arts time while I was meeting with a guided reading group in another first grade classroom. She pulled me out to say that our little princess's dad was here to take her because they were moving. It was not clear that our little princess knew what was happening.

I wrapped up my guided reading group and abandoned the idea of meeting with my next one. I walked our little princess down to the office trying to figure out what was going on. She had no idea.

As it turns out, the family had moved two months ago into a mobile home half an hour away (after living in only one bedroom for years). They had hoped she would be able to finish the year with us but it was just too hard to get her here with all the other demands of work and family (two younger siblings at home). She did not know today would be her last day. My principal managed to convince dad to keep bringing her for the rest of the week so that there would be time to register her at her new school and to give her time to adjust to this idea.

In 13 years of teaching here I've had kids give us a day or two of notice before leaving. I've had kids just not return and then learn that they moved. But I've never had a parent come in the middle of the day to take a kid away for good. Thank goodness for our amazing principal and a handy parent liaison who could translate.

Our school has a 30% mobility rate. I've been lucky. Our little princess will only be the third child who has left my room this year. I've gotten two new ones during the year. Some classrooms have had half their population turn over as the year progresses.

A high mobility rate is a challenge for the students and for the school. A classroom with a lot of turn over spends a ton of time reteaching routines, learning about new students, and redesigning instruction to accommodate changes.

That doesn't even take into consideration the half hour I spent this morning sorting out what was happening with our little princess. Having an intern in my room meant that the students were able to continue with a normal day. Otherwise, instructional time would have been lost.