Sunday, September 30, 2012

Paul Tough's How Children Succeed

A few years ago I read Whatever It Takes by Paul Tough. I was intrigued by Geoffrey Canada and wanted to learn more about his Harlem Children's Zone. I enjoyed the book and thought it was well written. So when I learned about Tough's new book, How Children Succeed, I knew I would read it.

I began reading it on vacation this summer and was fascinated. I was in New Mexico at my grandparent's home with my parents and my daughters. I read multiple passages aloud to anyone who would listen and talked at length with my mom (who was a nurse) about the medical studies he shares. The first two chapters, How to Fail (and How Not To) and How to Build Character were quite compelling. The third chapter, How to Think, is almost completely about one public school in New York City and its chess program. I found it mildly interesting but not nearly as much as Tough clearly did and it slowed my progress considerably (that and the end of my vacation and school starting). The final two chapters, How to Succeed and A Better Path were more interesting to me, but still paled in comparison with the first two.

One of the studies Tough references very early in the book, beginning on page nine, has haunted me for the past six weeks. It is the Adverse Childhood Experiences study. It was run by Kaiser Permanente in California beginning in 1995. Patients were asked to complete a questionnaire about their personal history in regards to adverse childhood experience, such as abuse neglect and various types of family dysfunction (ten total categories). This was requested when patients came in for a comprehensive physical exam. More than seventeen thousand questionnaires were returned, a rate of almost 70%. The individuals tended to be middle class, most were white and most had attended college.

They found that "the higher the ACE score, the worse the outcome on almost every measure from addictive behavior to chronic disease." (page 10) The statistics Tough states blew my mind.

The most astounding thing was that these adverse childhood experiences had a negative impact on health even for people who did not smoke, drink to excess, or were overweight. The new theory became that the cause of these health problems was the stress of these experiences. Essentially our bodies are not made to endure ongoing, constant stress and managing that stress day in and day out wears on our bodies.

This has barely scratched the surface of Tough's book, but it was the most compelling piece for me. Enough for me to continue on and do more research about the ACE study. For the record my ACE score is 0. You can find your own, if you are interested, here.

More to come I'm sure...

Learning, in so many ways

We've been working on making our first movie of the year. As a Title I school we have a Home-School Compact for Learning that was created by staff and parents. It details parents' responsibilities, staffs' responsibilities, and students' responsibilities. Each student gets a copy that they sign, their parent signs, and their teacher signs.

I don't think my first graders understand most of the ten things on their list of responsibilities so we make this movie each year. It takes us about two weeks but it helps them understand and it gives them experience with making a movie (experience we'll build on all year).

We start by reading each responsibility, a few per day, and talking about what that means and how it looks. Then we take pictures showing how it looks. Eventually we dump the pictures into MovieMaker and narrate them.

Some of their responsibilities are easier to understand than others. "Read at home everyday." is pretty clear. "Come to school everyday, on time, well-rested, and prepared to learn." requires a bit more discussion. "Obey all school and classroom rules." is another one that seems pretty obvious to me. When I asked them about it they seemed to get it. When asked how that looks, my favorite response was:
"you are not supposed to get a napkin and do spitballs."
True. Very true.

In case you are interested in their final product, here it is.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Driving & Teaching Conditions

I remember learning to drive. Keeping track of everything I needed to was immensely challenging and stressful. Watching my speed, the road ahead of me, the cars around me...much less actually listening to the radio or talking to passengers in the car (and this was way before cell phones!).

For months when I first got my learner's permit I would take the long way, or at least slightly longer way, to church. The normal route required a left turn at a curve in the road that made it hard to see oncoming traffic well. I decided it was easier to avoid that turn and take the longer way. Eventually my father got fed up and informed me that we were going the normal way to church and I just had to learn to make that turn. I did but it scared me. Too much going on and I couldn't see it all.

Thinking back to my first years of teaching it feels the same way. Keeping track of everything I needed to was immensely challenging and stressful. Classroom management, assessment, lesson plans, paperwork, communication with parents...much less really knowing my students and their needs. Too much going on and I couldn't see it all.

Like driving that all feels under control now. It still requires my attention and thoughtfulness, just as driving does, but I've synthesized it, brought it together, done it for years, and it feels pretty natural.

I worry about young teachers because I believe that they have too much to keep their eyes on. It's not just driving, it's driving in heavy traffic, in a rain storm, late at night, through a construction zone.

Not only do they have to do everything teachers have been doing for decades, but they have to create SMART goals (or if you are in my school district, SMARTR goals), have at least one hour long team meeting each week, create, administer, and analyze common assessments, and who knows what else.

It seems they need a shorter route for a bit as they adjust to all of this. They need to be able to avoid that scary turn until they have the experience and confidence to make it.


photo from kretyen on flikr

Thursday, September 27, 2012

What Does a Principal Do?

Recently one of our assistant principals came in to read The Principal from the Black Lagoon to us. (We've had the librarian and the P.E. teacher in to read their respective books in the series as well. It's a fun way to invite guests in and build our understanding of a series.)

She asked my first graders what they think a principal does. I waited with bated breath to hear their responses. I had hoped for something a bit more interesting, but I found their thoughts pretty on target.

The first one said:
"If you get in trouble in class, if you do something really bad, you go to the principal's office."
It saddened me a bit to think that their first thought about the principal was about being in trouble. They've only had one, maybe two years, of schooling so far but they've got that completely figured out. One of my goals is to invite all three of our principals in throughout the year so the kids can see them in a different context. Our principal made it down for Dot Day for a bit which was fun.

The second student said:
"The principals are the boss of the school."
That's about how I explain their job. I wonder if there is a better explanation for what a principal does.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Our Hopes and Dreams

 One of the first things we do every year is to think about our hopes and dreams (this is a Responsive Classroom thing).Asking six year olds what they hope to have happen this year is quite a question.

This year the big answer was, "I hope to be a faster runner." One child said it and then quite a few thought that sounded like a great idea. Get on that P.E. teachers!



We draw pictures of our hopes coming true and hang them up as a reminder all year. I love that they are on clouds and therefore look fabulous on our blue wall.


After we share our hopes for the year we use them to create classroom rules. We talk about how we can help each other achieve their hopes. The rules always turn out about the same. (One year I did have a child suggest, "Be the best first grade class ever." That seemed like it pretty well covered everything.)

This year our rules are:
- Treat people kindly.
- Help people.
- Treat things kindly.

If we all lived that way we'd have a pretty great place to be.



Sunday, September 23, 2012

Stay on the Paths

Friday afternoon I was talking with a colleague whom I greatly respect and like. My youngest was wandering around the classroom during our conversation. She's only five and I didn't think she was paying any attention to us.

However, at one point she ran over, quite excitedly, to say, "Mommy, mommy! That sounds like in the Mysterious Benedict Society, when they went to that place, where they had the crazy rules. Remember? Like 'You can go anywhere you want, as long as you stay on the paths.'"

My colleague and I looked at each other in great surprise. How astute. That is exactly how we are feeling. You can go anywhere you want, as long as you stay on the paths.

At a staff meeting earlier this year what is tight or loose about our PLC process was addressed. Tight? We must have two language arts team meetings and two math team meetings each month. Loose? We can have more team meetings if we want. You can go anywhere you want, as long as you stay on the paths.

Tight? We must have a common assessment in math and a common assessment in language arts each quarter. Loose? We can have more common assessments and in other subjects if we want. You can go anywhere you want, as long as you stay on the paths.

We are a Responsive Classroom school. We have an RC committee and we were reminded of our RC status a week ago regarding teachers taking recess away from kids for not doing homework or for behavior problems. Yet, as a school we have 'red zones' in our hallways where there is no talking and 'yellow zones' in the bathrooms and cafeteria where there is quiet talking and a red strobe light in the cafeteria for when it gets too loud. (Adults still talk in the halls.) You can go anywhere you want, as long as you stay on the paths.

Questions, concerns, any kind of pushback are met with, "You can go anywhere you want, as long as you stay on the paths." (Not in those words, of course. Only the five-year-old is that wise.)


I firmly believe in the RC model and the idea that teachers should not take recess away for homework or behavior problems. It is shortsighted and developmentally inappropriate. So is a strobe light in the cafeteria.
On a lighter note, if you haven't read The Mysterious Benedict Society you are missing out on a great series of books.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Now I Shouldn't Listen to the Radio Either

On my way to the gym this morning at 5:15 am (it doesn't happen often but it did today) I heard a brief story on NPR's Morning Edition. The story annoyed me enough that on my way to school, two hours later, I dreaded it coming back on. Usually I don't remember until the story comes back on and I think, "Ugh, I've already heard this."

Shankar Vedantam, who typically explains social science research and issues, discussed a study about 'loss aversion.' The basic idea is that giving teachers a bonus at the start of a year and requiring that they return it if test scores are not high enough makes for great test scores. I have so many issues with this.

Enough issues that I wrote my first letter to NPR:
As a teacher I am grateful for the extensive and deep coverage education receives from NPR. Unfortunately, today’s piece by Shankar Vedantam on loss aversion as a strategy for improving test scores was highly disappointing. His basic overview of the study was accurate. 
However, my husband, a college professor, and I, an elementary school teacher, were disappointed and disturbed by a couple of aspects of the story. The first stems from Vedantam’s statement, “The test was standardized so there was no cheating on the test scores.” It is clear there was plenty of cheating in Atlanta on standardized tests and widely accepted that the same is true in Washington, D.C. Such a statement as Vedantam’s is na├»ve. 
The second point, and the truly critical one, is summed up in the quote that stated that loss aversion turned “average teachers into great teachers.” The assumption here is that student test scores define average or great or otherwise teachers. Students are much more than their test scores show. Defining success solely by test scores is limiting and highly unfair to children and to teachers. 


The title of this blog post refers to a previous post.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Fabulous and Frustrating

Today was equally fabulous and frustrating. The fabulous parts were all about the kids. Kids engaged in books and talking about books. Kids completely focused on writing their own books and excited to share their writing. Kids analyzing their responsibilities in our Home-School compact and deciding what those responsibilities look like so we can make a video about them. Kids working together (or cooperating as the Home-School compact says) with blocks to create a very long pattern. Kids asking each other for help. Kids listening to one another. Kids just being fabulous first graders.

The frustrating parts were the adults. Authority figures talking to teachers in immensely condescending tones. Teachers talking to children in immensely condescending tones. Adults expecting a ridiculous amount of bureaucratic paperwork and nonsense. Adults setting up school-wide rules and consequences that completely contradict our calling ourselves a Responsive Classroom school. Adults micromanaging teachers.

Each sentence above, both about the kids and about the adults is a long story in and of itself. The kid ones I can write (and am likely doing so quite often on our class blog at least). The adult ones are not so shareable.

I am so grateful for the joy, excitement, and, to be honest, the respect in my classroom with my students. Respect for me. Respect from me. Respect for one another.

I am also grateful for the majority of adults in my school who show that respect to the students and to one another.

I am sad to see how easy it is for me to lose sight of those students and adults when confronted too often with the lack of respect shown by a few.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Opening Minds: Chapters 7-9

At this point I think it is safe to say that I am writing about Opening Minds just for myself. Writing these posts about this book and Choice Words have helped me process my thinking about Peter Johnston's work and given me a reference to refer back to in the future. I expect I will still reread these books but these posts are a quick, easy way to refresh my memory more frequently.

On to the final chapters! The end of Opening Minds becomes quite a bit about social justice and was, to me, exceptionally powerful. Both of these books are powerful to me, but the end of this one takes everything Johnston writes about up one last, meaningful mountain.

Chapter seven is Moral Agency: Moral Development and Civic Engagement. The key quote from this chapter, for me, is on page 91:
Whether we like to think about it or not, while we are teaching math or science or language arts, we are also nurturing particular forms of moral development. Pretending otherwise will not change the evidence or serve children or society well.
I may be wrong but I think that is pretty well understood at the elementary level, especially in early grades. The older students get, the more focused and narrow the content becomes, the easier it is to ignore this. The choices we make as teachers about everything we do is teaching our students something. It may not be what we intend to teach, but they are learning from all our actions.

The big idea about how to develop moral agency is summed up pretty well on page 88:
Parenting that provides a supportive environment and engages children in thinking about moral problems, providing explanations and suggestions, is the most appropriate course of action for parents. Teaching in school is no different.
Discipline without reason or understanding does not help children grow morally. It simply, maybe, solves the immediate problem.

In chapter eight, Thinking Together, Working Together, Johnston explores the idea that a group can be smarter together than they are individually. On page 98 he has a list of 'argumentation strategies' children generated. These look to me to be great sentence starters when helping students begin to truly have conversations that involve engaging together. A big piece of this, and one that Johnston discusses, is listening. We can not truly think together and learn from one another if we are not listening.

The final chapter is Choice Worlds. A big part of what struck me here was Johnston's exploration of the purpose of schooling.This includes the big, over-arching goals of education in a society (such as for economic gain) and the more micro purposes in a school or classroom. Am I simply teaching my students to prepare them for second grade? Or am I teaching them to prepare them for their now and for their lives?

A passage on page 114 reminded me of another book I am reading, Paul Tough's How Children Succeed. (It's quite an interesting book and one I will write about soon.)
Our main advantage as human beings lies in our ability to think together. Our main threat has become our failure to think and act together on larger scales and to act on the understanding that the sheer existence of our species depends on how we think together - how we experience and treat each other. We can think of this as an autoimmune disorder. In recent years in the United States the number of people experiencing physiological autoimmune disorders has grown quite rapidly, and there is reason to believe that this growth is associated with increasing stress.
Tough, in his book, cites several studies about stress, especially the stress of living in poverty, and its impact on people's health. The results are astounding.

At the end of Opening Minds I nearly cried. Johnston ends with these lines on page 124:
Given what we know, failing to attend to students' civic, social, and broader cognitive development in school is not only academically short-changing children, it is criminal.
Well, now you know... 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Not My Normal Post


I greeted them at the door to our trailer, just like I had each day for the first five days of fourth grade.

Ms. Orr, you lied to us.
I know, I’m sorry.
Why, Ms. Orr, why did you lie to us?
I had to. We didn’t know enough. We couldn’t answer your questions.

We gathered in a circle on our chairs, just like we’d done each day for the first five days of school.

I’m sorry for lying. I know this was hard for you. If you have questions now I will answer them, if I know the answer, and it will all be truth.

Why did they do it?
I don’t know. People have lots of thoughts and ideas but no one actually knows. We can only guess.

Who did it?
I’m not certain about that either. Again, there are lots of guesses and people think they know but it’s not certain yet. I do think we will figure out the answer to that question though. It will just take time.


My people did it.

It was a small boy, only nine years old, wearing his hair up on the front of his head like all males in the Sikh religion.
My heart broke.
It wasn’t your people. You had no connection to the people who did this. None at all.

I didn’t think he believed me. I still don’t.




Last year I wrote about my memories of September 13, 2001. This past summer, during the Invitational Summer Institute one of the teachers had us study several pages of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. She then had us write in that style about a powerful event in our lives. She doesn't require her students to write about September 11th because most of them don't remember it well enough. I chose to write about September 13th. 

Here in the suburbs of D.C. we did not have school on the 12th. So much was uncertain and unstable it was decided best not to have students in school and buses on the road. September 13, 2012 was possibly the most challenging day I have ever had as a teacher.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Too Tired to Write

First week in first grade is exhausting.






Sunday, September 09, 2012

Happy School Moments

Thanks to an inspirational friend I have been posting positive school moments on Facebook. It started back in the spring when testing season began and she needed to remind herself of the positive things happening in her classroom. I thought the idea was brilliant and could always use the nudge to focus on the great things happening. I think teachers often see the gaps, problems, needs, rather than strengths and successes because we are focused on improving things. We need to celebrate the wonders as well though.



Many of the people who comment on my updates are also teachers. There is a wide range in ages they teach from elementary through college.

A lot of folks who like these updates, on the other hand, are not teachers. It feels like a small way to promote the good in public education. I don't know if that is really happening but I like to think so.








Tuesday, September 04, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Hopeful

We had a fabulous first day today. We didn't do much and I think that was a good thing. I read A LOT of books to them (I think the final count was nine) and we explored with crayons, pattern blocks, and scissors. We did also manage to organize all our materials. Easing into first grade is good for all of us.









Sadly, stories of other teachers (stories heard from all over) marred my wonderful day. In our exhaustion we, as teachers, adults, authority figures, do not always respond to students well. I know that is true for me and I do try not to judge others. But I am hearing stories of first days. Days that should not include complete exhaustion - not yet, there are 179 more for that. 

I dropped my kids off at P.E. today and they followed their P.E. teacher across the gym in a fairly straight line. What they desperately wanted to do was to talk to and wave at all their friends in the other two classes, kids they knew from kindergarten and hadn't seen in two months. I am so grateful to that fabulous P.E. teacher for gentle reminders and patience with their enthusiasm.

That's my biggest goal for this school year. I want to respond to my students with gentleness and empathy. I want to imagine how they are feeling - good or bad - and try to make things better. I won't always succeed but these beautiful little brand-new first graders deserve a teacher who keeps trying to treat them the way she wants her daughters treated. These students are someone else's daughters and sons. I want to be the teacher I want for my girls.

Monday, September 03, 2012

A Good Omen

Tomorrow is the first day of school.

Take a deep breath. That sort of statement requires a deep breath and some calming thoughts. It engenders so much excitement and nerves.

I know I'm set for a fabulous year though. At Open House last week the first three kiddos to come in were uncertain and clinging to their parents. I tried gently to talk with them and suggested they check out the books in our classroom library. Before long I was distracted by a new arrival and then turned around to see this:



All three had picked up a Piggie and Elephant book. A year that starts with Piggie and Elephant is sure to be wonderful.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Welcoming Friends

My great love for Mo Willems is pretty well known. Our librarian is certainly aware of it. When Mo Willems' books begin to fall apart in our library, as they often do, she orders new copies and passes the deteriorating ones to me. I cut out fun pictures of the characters and hang them up around our room with speech bubbles. If they aren't already, they will soon be faithful friends for my students.

I got home and looked at these pictures and realized that should be a question mark there. I'll fix that. This picture of Elephant Gerald is beside our calendar.
Duckling is on our AC/heating unit, right beside our main meeting area where we will have our morning meetings.
Pigeon is just above our computers. He looked a bit smug to me, something about the wing pointing at his chest. Of course, smug is probably the way Pigeon seems a lot.
Last year I got a two-drawer filing cabinet that I plan to use for work stations. I can keep the materials inside and the kids can use the sides for magnetic activities and the top as a desk/table. We'll see how it goes.
I love all these excited pictures of Elephant Gerald. I could have used pictures of just him all around the room. This one is above one of our library bookshelves.










Our Wonder Table is just inside the door of our classroom. I love that the first thing people seen when they walk in is a bunch of interesting stuff on a table. Pigeon loves it too.
Trixie here is beside the desk we have for when kids need a break. The desk is available for other purposes, but it's always good to have a dedicated spot for when students just need a few minutes away from everything else. Trixie should help them smile.
These pictures of Piggie, Elephant Gerald, Pigeon, Duckling, and Trixie all make me smile. They are so wonderfully drawn that they elicit a smile no matter what. Piggie sits above our math manipulatives shelf.













The white board speech bubbles will be easy to change throughout the year and that is my plan. I hope I'll change the others as well. It will be interesting to watch my emerging readers work on these because I think they'll want to do so.