Monday, September 30, 2013

Gotta Love the Internet

Just before school started someone shared about redditgifts for teachers. I can't remember where I saw it but it was the day before sign up ended and I quickly threw my name in there.

Surprisingly shortly thereafter I received an amazing box of goodies. I was floored.

When I checked out the redditgifts for teachers site I found that many, many teachers had received equally amazing packages.

I love the internet. Even more though, I love the fabulous people out there who will generously and anonymously support teachers in this way and so many others.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Family Portraits

One of the activities my students did in the first few weeks of school was to draw a portrait of their family. I actually worded it as drawing all the people who live with you. Many of our students live with a wide range of people and I want to be sensitive to this. It's easy to refer to having mom or dad sign something or to tell kids to make sure mom or dad is with them at an evening event. I want to be inclusive. Plus, it's helpful for me to have some understanding of their home lives.

Their pictures were awesome. They also had to label the people in the pictures. I wrote any words they wanted up for them to help.

This one surprised me but I've followed up and it's accurate. (Although I believe an aunt and two cousins also live in the apartment.)

This one cracked me up with how tiny the people are.

These are pretty well-drawn bodies from a six-year-old. 

Originally this picture only had my student and his brother (who was in my class last year). I sent the boy back to add the adults who live in his home!

Another one that made me laugh. All that space and the tiny people and tiny labels.

One of the things that fascinated me was the different ways students drew people. Some had so many details and some were more basic. I learned a lot from this.

This one warmed my heart. Her mom doesn't live with her but she told me she wanted to put her in the picture. The girl was really thoughtful about the skin color for everyone in her house. Her parents are of different races and you can see the various shades here. This was really important to her.
Another girl requested that I spell a name. I wrote it for her and then asked who that was. She told me it is her baby sister whose in her mommy's tummy. She then drew the little one in the tummy and labeled her. Beautiful.

It's so easy in a first grade classroom to feel like one is on a hamster wheel, just going, going, going. I love what I see and learn when I slow down to watch and listen.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Students and Mental Health

A week ago Valerie Strauss, of the Washington Post, wrote about the impact of mental health issues on students. Nothing there is shocking but it is still eye-opening and worth reading.

The statistics she shares are interesting, but leave a lot of questions:
Over 70 percent of students diagnosed with mental illness and behavioral health problems by middle school exhibited warning signs by second grade.
• Almost 25 percent exhibited red flags during pre-kindergarten years, including developmental and health issues, adverse social factors and exposure to trauma.
• Twenty-five percent of the children studied had documented traumatic experiences in their records.
So, I would guess that the warning signs exhibited by second grade are exhibited by plenty of students. Noting that students later identified with mental illness or behavioral health problems had such symptoms doesn't mean we should have been able to identify it early. It's much more complicated than this makes it sound.

That last statistic, about the children with documented traumatic experiences, hit hard for me today. We had a practice lock down this morning. I explained the procedure to my first graders, attempting to keep it not too scary but understandable about why we do it and how. After I finished a number of students wanted to share. The first one told a story about a time her family had to lock their doors and call the police because a person downstairs had a knife and killed someone (not sure if someone actually died because she also said the person who was killed was put in an ambulance). Others shared times they had to call the police or get an ambulance, although no other stories were quite as scary to me.

I know many of my students over the years have experienced traumatic events. I'm not sure I know how to help them. Recognizing that they have these experiences or that they have symptoms of mental health issues doesn't mean I have any knowledge about what to do next. I'm lucky enough to be in a district with lots of resources. That's not true everywhere. Our kids deserve the best we can give them. All of them.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

I Promise, I Really Don't Like Testing

A couple of days ago Diane Ravitch wrote about California and Texas requesting that the Department of Education allow them to administer fewer tests. The two states had different reasons for their requests and both were rejected. I didn't pay that much attention to California's reason, although I'll be curious to see what happens there (as it looks like they will go ahead and do what they were told they can't do).

The Texas issue, however, really struck me. Both Diane Ravitch and the post she quotes fully support Texas in its efforts to reduce testing. I can't believe I'm about to argue against that.

Texas requested permission not to test every student every year. Apparently students there take 17 tests before they get to high school. That seems to be shocking to some folks. Of course, when I count, our kiddos in Virginia take 11 tests in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades. 17 doesn't seem like a stretch before high school at all.

I firmly believe that's too many tests. Way, way, way too many.

Texas is asking to not test children who have passed the previous year. For example, a child who passed the reading test in 3rd grade would not have to take it in 4th grade. If a child passes the test in 5th grade they should not have to take it in 6th or 7th. The reasoning is that students who have previously passed a test are significantly likely to pass the next one.

Well, duh.

It seems like students who didn't pass the test are significantly likely not to pass the next one as well. But Texas wants to keep giving them tests.

I have two issues with this. One is that if children are not passing the test I don't understand how giving them more tests is the best use of their time in school. Every time we administer a test we lose learning time. The kids who are not passing tests need that learning time the most but Texas wants to continue to deny it to them. In these moments I'm always left with the old saying in my head about how weighing a pig doesn't make it fatter (somewhere in there you've got to spend time feeding the pig well).

My second concern is that this would set up a two tiered instructional system (one that is, in many ways, already in existence). Students who pass the tests, overwhelmingly students from middle and upper class backgrounds, would be able to spend their time in school focused on genuine learning, questioning, and exploring while students who do not pass the tests, overwhelmingly students living in poverty, would continue to spend their days with drill and kill like instruction and more tests. (John Spencer had a fascinating piece about this exact issue not too long ago.)

I don't really blame Texas here. Not giving so many tests is a wonderful goal, but I don't believe it should be done in a way that will add to our educational segregation.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Visually Amusing

Yesterday I found myself amused numerous times throughout the day (which was fortunate because it wasn't a highly successful day in my classroom, mostly because of me).

It began on our drive to school. We passed a sporty little black car that had been pulled over for a traffic violation. It's license plate was F-16 Jet. If you're going to drive a car like that and even draw more attention with that license plate, you might want to be extra careful about your speed.

At school another first grade teacher shared a piece of her student's writing that made us all laugh out loud. First graders often inadvertently write things that crack us up as they write down the sounds they hear in words. English is tough.

At recess I watched another first grade class line up. This class has some tiny little cuties in it and one shirt caught our eye. It said 'My game is super sized' but the super sized part was written in big font and really stood out. I snapped a quick shot of that little guy beside one of his classmates.

Finally, watching one more first grade class walk back from lunch I saw a boy with an ice pack on his head, nursing a boo-boo. Right in front of him in line was another boy, this one wearing a shirt with a bat on it that said, 'I may be small, but I still bite.' I'm sure that was just coincidental, but...

Monday, September 16, 2013

Dot Day!

Last week we read Peter H. Reynolds' The Dot for the first time. I don't think my class found it too different from any of the myriad other books we've read in the first two weeks. We read it again before the week was over and then again this morning. Today I asked them about Vashti (the main character) and they talked about how she was brave in the book because she didn't think she could draw but she tried anyway. (Be brave is one of the class rules they created this year.)

So we tried to be like Vashti in a lot of ways today. We made individual dots using watercolors, markers, or colored pencils. Or even all three!

We made our mark on our white board in the hallway (and invited the class across the hall to do so as well).

We created a dot all together. I covered a round table with white paper and we rolled paint on it. Honestly, I had hoped we would cover even more of the white space but it looks pretty nifty as is.

We used FableVision's Big Screen Books to put pictures from The Dot in the correct order. The final time we did, when the whole class was involved, there was much cheering at the end of it.

We made pictures by stamping dots with pencil erasers.

We tie-dyed dots (drew on fabric with permanent markers and then dripped rubbing alcohol on it to bleed the colors).

By the end of the day we had made dots, made our mark, been creative, and taken risks. As an added bonus, we grew more as a community as well.

When we gathered on the carpet for dismissal I asked the students how they had been like Vashti today. Some gave the expected answer that they had made dots like she made dots. Others said they had been brave because they had tried things that were hard for them - with specific examples, no less.

It was a beautiful Dot Day and the beauty from it will continue to shine on display around our classroom. I love it!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Favorite Friends

Oh my goodness the first two weeks of school have knocked me out. Completely. There are at least eight ideas bouncing around in my head that I've had no time to write about. It's wrecking my whole reflection plan.

Last year I wrote speech bubbles for a bunch of Mo Willems' characters hanging around our classroom. This year, thanks to the brilliant suggestion from our librarian, I had the kids do them instead.

I shared the ones I had created last year that couldn't be erased with the students. I talked about how I had looked at the characters and thought about what they might be thinking that would be about first grade. Then I sent them off in groups of three to do the same. I was concerned that this was a bit of a stretch. I was completely wrong.

I'm an especially big fan of the mom and Trixie from Knuffle Bunny. In case it's hard to read, mom is saying, "Why don't you like first grade?" Her facial expression is perfect. 

Trixie looks exactly like a younger sibling who is desperate to go to school with her older sister. 

It took a bit for us to get the spelling, upper and lower case letters, and punctuation correct, but they stuck with it and worked together. It was a highlight of the start of our year together. 

Monday, September 09, 2013

First Grade Photography

I did it! For a couple of years now I"ve wanted to give a camera to a different child each day and have them document our day. But something has held me back.

This summer, at the Northern Virginia Writing Project summer institute, we kept an ethnographer's report throughout the four weeks. Each day a different person wrote what we were doing throughout the day. It was such fun to read and an inspiration to me for my classroom.
So, these are all pictures taken by my student photographer today (except the top one of him taking a picture).

I'm really excited about the possibilities here!