Saturday, November 30, 2013

Bedtime Reading

This past week two other first grade teachers and I hosted a bedtime reading event at school. Our school is fabulous about evening events for families, sometimes academic focused and other times more for fun. We've done Partners in Print for our primary grades and a variety of other SOL (state standards) focused events in the upper grades. This event was different. We invited our students for an event in our rooms with us. The hope was that being in their child's classroom with their child's teacher would be motivating to attend as well as more comfortable and relaxed than a bigger event in the cafeteria or gym. Plus, we invited folks to come in their pajamas and we wore ours!

The total number of students invited was just under 60 (remember, just our kiddos). For a typical event, getting a quarter of our kids would be a success. For this evening, we invited families to arrive about 6:45 because we wanted to really get started at 7:00. We began in a resource classroom where we could all gather as folks trickled in. At 6:30 families were already arriving. We had bookmarks ready for the kids to stamp. There were almost 100 bookmarks and they were almost all well stamped by 6:45.

Due to the astounding turnout (quite a bit larger than we anticipated), I gathered most of the kiddos on the carpet and read them a big book. This was a last minute idea, I saw a big book sitting nearby and rolled with it. It worked quite well, thankfully.
About 7:00 we all moved on to our own classrooms. We had a short, about four minute, video to show of bedtime reading. (The video was taken by one of my students last year. She recorded her mom reading with her younger brother and then her mom recorded the two kids reading together. All of it in pajamas curled up in bed. I took two minute segments from each bit to share.) We used the video to highlight bedtime reading routines and benefits. We didn't want to talk at families too much so we kept this part short.
For the next twenty minutes families read together. We had worried that this might not work well, that folks might not buy into it, but our fears were unfounded. I wandered around, listened as families read, suggested other books, and laughed with families. I watched one mom and her two boys reading several Elephant and Piggie books laughing until they nearly cried. At the end she said to me, "We've got to get some of these!" I spoke with one mom about her daughter's fabulous reading this year and she told me that her daughter had invented "Power Hour" at their house. For an hour they all read together, moving from one bed to another. At first the younger brother didn't like it, apparently, but now he's enjoying it too. Some kids wanted to read with their friends while parents read with younger siblings. Others, the whole family read together.

Just before 7:30 I stopped everyone. I heard at least one parent say, "Already?" It made my night. Before leaving, every child, our students and their siblings, got a brand new book to keep. (We bought the $1 books from the preschool, kindergarten, first grade, second grade, and fourth grade Scholastic catalogs.)

I had 13 out of 20 students there with families. Across the hall there were, I believe 11 out of 17. I'm not sure about the third classroom. It was an impressive turnout. We teachers all went home exhausted and fell asleep in the pajamas we had worn all evening.

Growing Number of Homeless Students

These graphics are from Education Week. (From what I can tell the graphics are not online, although the article is.) I looked at them a few weeks ago (this is Education Week's November 6th issue). Looking at it now, when I had some time to blog about it, I was reminded of Dean Dad's recent post. He writes about how different things can be for students depending on their parents' life experiences.
This matters. It matters way more than some folks would like to admit.
From my warm, cozy home with a fridge full of food, closets full of clothes, and comfy beds for all of us, it can be easy to be blind to the challenges faced by many children in our country.
In the graphics here I am struck by several things.
1. The continuing rise in homeless students is surprising to me.
2. The quote,"Of the homeless students who took state exams, around half or fewer scored at proficient levels in mathematics or reading." comes as no shock. The most surprising thing here for me is that nearly half of these students are passing. Children are astoundingly resilient. But you'd think we wouldn't be forcing them to be quite so often.
3. There are a handful of states in which the percentage of homeless students has gone down. What is going on there? Have families left those states? Have they done something positive to support those families (sadly, I am skeptical of that possibility)? Are those students dropping off the radar somewhere and not getting counted? I want a deeper story.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Play Matters

As one who teaches young children, typically about six years old, I've thought a lot lately about them and formal schooling. I've wondered if five is too young to move into what is, at least these days, much more structured and much less play based than what seems appropriate. As a result, I looked briefly into how old students are when they start school in various countries. I didn't find anything that seemed revolutionary but the question kept nagging at me.
Then, back in late September I came across this piece from the University of Cambridge (U.K.).(Yes, tabs stay open in my browser for a long time. I'm glad to finally be getting to this one.)
The piece was written by an education professor at Cambridge, David Whitebread, one of many speaking up about the age for starting school in the U.K. According to Whitebread, students begin formal schooling at four. He argues that this is too young and that children should still be learning through play at that age. He cites research showing the importance of play in the early years based on neuroscience and on long-term looks at students who began school at different ages. He also suggests that in many educationally high-achieving countries, students start school at the age of seven.
I went in predisposed to agree with his argument, so the fact that I do so is unsurprising. I believe we are doing many things in early schooling that set our students up for failure, both in their present and in their future. Young children are being asked to sit still for too long, to be quiet for too long, to fill out too many worksheets and take too many tests. They are not given enough time to talk to one another, to explore their world, to ask questions, and to pretend.
My belief in the importance of play is not new (I talked about it on the ASCD Whole Child podcast in early October) but this article has done some powerful reinforcing. It may take me a bit, but I have every intention of making some structural changes in my classroom to allow for more play. I hope, by the new year, to share some successes in that area. (Which means, if you want, call me out in a month - this is a time accountability makes perfect sense to me!)

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Thursday, November 21st, in First Grade (for MTBoS)

I missed a couple of missions for the MTBoS. This is mission #7. 
5:30-6:15 am: Me time - I like to start my day with email, twitter, facebook, and blogs. Before anyone else in the house is up and I can just enjoy.
6:15-7:15 am: Get everyone up and out of the house. The 10 year old is great about it usually, the 6 year old, less so. On a good day we can leave before 7:10. On a less good day it can be between 7:20 and 7:30. The kids get breakfast on their own while the parents get ready for the day.
7:15-7:45 am: Daily Commute - the girls and I listen to a book on CD on our way to school (they attend my school). During the drive I manage to floss and eat breakfast (usually a protein shake).
7:45-8:30 am: Prep - spent time getting the morning message ready, talking with colleagues about the night's event, and generally making sure our room was ready for the day.
8:30 am: Kids arrive! I greet my 20 first graders at the door, shake their hands and say good morning. They unpack, sign our morning message and chat with each other.
8:45-9:00 am: Morning meeting - I participate but one kid each day runs the meeting.
9:00-9:30 am: Independent reading - I read too. We read for about 15-20 minutes and then talk with a friend about our books.

During this period, our fabulous school counselor came in to watch my kiddos so I could run out and be interviewed for a piece my district is creating about the value of our school counselors. After a quick trip to the counselor's office to answer questions and sing her praises, I returned to take over with my darlings.
9:30-11:15 am: L.A.B. (language arts block) - We start with a whole group lesson then kiddos go off to work on reading and writing. I spend the time meeting with small groups for reading, small groups for writing, and doing individual conferences for writing and reading. We stop a little before 11 and come back as a group to share our learning.
11:15-11:55 am: Kids are at P.E.! Yay! I spent this time punching out bookmarks for the evening event and pulling together other materials for it.
11:55 am-12:25 pm: Recess! While making sure kids are being (reasonably) safe, I get some time to talk to colleagues. Granted, it's talk that is frequently interrupted by requests to go to the bathroom, complaints of being mistreated, or demands that we watch something they do, but it's still a chance to talk to adults!
12:30-1:00 pm: After getting the kids through the lunch line and heating up my lunch (pasta and spinach), I go back to my room and eat while I relax at my computer.
1:00-1:45 pm: I actually pick the kids up a bit early, closer to 12:55 so that we can get to the library by 1:00. This time the librarian got us looking through poetry books as we are just beginning a unit on poetry. She pulled out a large stack and kids shared what they noticed. After some great observations they checked out books. I end up at a second computer checking kids out because they're always all ready at once.
1:45-2:45 pm: Back to our room for math. We're studying fractions right now so the focus was on making equal parts of sets. Last week we talked about equal parts of area models. We want to be sure we have a firm grasp of equal parts before moving on. After a group lesson, students moved on to work stations focused on number sense. I floated around between stations, taking anecdotal notes, correcting misconceptions, and asking questions to push students a bit further in their thinking. Again, we came back for a brief group share of our learning.
2:45-2:55 pm: Calendar time - we spend 10-15 minutes each day using Every Day Counts, one of those rare, prepared programs I actually like (although I tweak it).
2:55-3:00 pm: Kids write down their homework in their agendas and get books to take home to read (homework is three things: Read, Share About equal parts (the share about changes every day), and Bed by 8).
3:00-3:15 pm: Free choice time! Kids pick one place to play: magnets, legos, brain noodles, cars, or gears. Usually this time is 20-25 minutes long but some days our afternoons get too tight.
3:15 pm: Kids go home. My daughters arrive in my classroom. They ask for computer time and I say yes as I need to get ready for tonight. I spend a while putting together a four minute video of a previous student and her family reading at bedtime. I took 12 minutes of video and cut it to the four minutes I thought would best serve our purpose. The other two colleagues involved in the night's event and I sit down to be sure we are ready.
5:00-6:30 pm: My girls and I run to Chick-fil-a to grab dinner and bring it back to school. We eat in my classroom with a colleague.
6:30 pm: Families are arriving for our event. We had said 6:45 because we really wanted to start at 7:00 and we have often found punctuality to be a problem. Clearly not for everyone! We gather those arriving in a classroom and get the kids stamping bookmarks. By 6:45 there are a ton of folks there and it's getting a bit crazy. I invite the kids (about 35 or so) to the carpet and read them a big book.
7:00-7:30 pm: We head to each of our own classrooms with our families. We begin with the short video to highlight the power and wonder that can be bedtime reading. Then families cuddle up together to read. I've got families on my couch, on beanbags, in chairs, and on pillows on the floor. Many of them in their pajamas (like me). My youngest is in her classroom participating and my oldest is rotating between classrooms taking pictures for us. When I stop families just before 7:30 I hear some folks say, "Already?" Woo-hoo! Every kid, my students and their siblings, gets a brand new book to keep. It's probably closer to 7:45 before everyone has gone. My girls and I get our things together and leave about 8:00.
8:00-8:30 pm: Back to our book on CD for the drive home.
8:30-9:00 pm: Get the girls to bed and get online for a bit. I'm still feeling high from our fabulous evening so I go through the pictures and share a few. My goal is to get to bed by 9:00 in order to be up at 4:30 am to get to boot camp. This time I got to bed closer to 9:30 pm. Not too bad. I was asleep by the time my husband, a college professor, got home from his long day.

Friday, November 22, 2013

So Many Feelings Here

Our fabulous school counselor has been doing regular lessons with my kiddos about emotions. She's read picture books and they've talked about the feelings of the characters. One of our goals with this (and we have many) is to help students make connections to books through emotions. Often first graders make connections by such things as, "I have a brother just like the boy in the book!" or "I like to play with blocks just like the girl in the book!" Not meaningful connections.
After a few lessons I asked students to pick one or two of their books and mark pages where they can tell how a character is feeling. They marked with post-it notes and wrote the emotion on it. Then we talked about how they knew - used the pictures, what they read. When they shared, mostly they talked about characters who felt happy or sad or mad. A few got brave and talked about excited or frustrated characters. It was a great start.
Later I came across a stray post-it lying on the floor. Clearly it came off a copy of Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late! by Mo Willems, a class favorite. 
The post-it said, "pigeon is untired" Yes, yes he is. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Math Question

Recently I met a friend for drinks at a 12th floor restaurant overlooking Washington, D.C. Of course, one wall was all windows. The view was gorgeous (although I never fully adjusted to the Washington Monument surrounded by scaffolding, no matter how they lit it).

This wall of windows was not just a straight line. The windows were sort of a zig zag set. Two windows, set at about a 30 degree angle, then two more windows in the same way. I was left wondering, does this set up make for a better view? Or is it just that it fits the architecture of the rest of the building? (I never saw that side of the building from outside.) Anyone know enough about architecture and/or math to figure this one out?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

I Learn By Listening

This year one student in my class has selective mutism. This is completely new to me, I've never known a child with selective mutism before, much less taught one. As a result, I've done a lot of research in the last couple of months, reading online and perusing some resources passed on to me by our school's social worker. It is fascinating to me and I am learning a ton.
That said, some of what I'm learning is what I'm noticing and reflecting about in my classroom. My biggest epiphany has come as I've tried to plan instruction. I have no sense of what this student knows, is able to do, or is thinking. I realize how much I rely on listening to students as assessment.
We've found a variety of ways for this child to participate: writing a letter or number on a small whiteboard as part of games and activities, indicating a choice from a few options using sign language letters, thumbs up or thumbs down. These strategies are immensely helpful and I'm grateful they are working.
They aren't, however, giving me any deep insight into what this child does and doesn't understand or has or has not learned. Without being able to hear this child's thinking I can't identify misconceptions or recognize when something has been mastered.
Most of what I know and understand about my students has come from listening to them. I never truly understood this.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

It's Not You, It's Me

Several years ago I had a student in my class who could completely push my buttons. For whatever reason, I found myself irritated with this girl frequently and I did not respond well to her. It was bad for both of us (and likely for others) on a daily basis.
About this time of the year I came across something that changed everything. At the end of each year we fill out a short form about each of our kiddos (basics on academic ability, reading level, and behavior concerns, as well as gender, ethnicity, and language) and use these to help us form the classes for the next year. We're looking to balance all of the above.
Her form had a note that said something like, "sweet girl, hard worker."
I was stunned. That didn't sound like the girl I knew. 
I asked her kindergarten teacher about it and she was as stunned as I was, but for her it was because she didn't recognize the girl I was describing. She offered to talk to the student. I thanked her but declined, with the caveat that I might be back if things didn't get better!
It did get better. Almost immediately. My viewing this student through a different lens completely changed how I interacted with her. It changed the entire atmosphere in our classroom.
About six weeks later she moved. My co-teacher, upon hearing this girl was leaving, said to me, "That's too bad. She was finally getting it." I responded with, "Oh no, I was finally getting it."
This year, I have another of these kiddos. One who, no matter what, is driving me slightly nutty. I know I respond differently to this child than I do to others. I know if any other kid in our class said or did the same things I would be much more patient and gentle and kind. 
Knowing this isn't changing it. I've talked with the fabulous kindergarten teachers (who, in many ways, has the same struggles that I'm having), my co-teacher, and our counselor. But none of them can fix this because the problem is me. (Although they've all been great about helping me talk through it and come up with strategies.)
I can always justify my responses based on this child's behavior. There are plenty of problems with the behavior. But it would only be a justification. I have to change my attitude, my reactions, my responses to this student. I have to change me.
I'm forty years old. This child is six. If I can't change, how can I expect a young child to do so?

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Drive by Daniel H. Pink

I have a slightly obsessive relationship with my public library system. My daughters and I use it quite frequently and visit four different libraries regularly. I've got systems that work for me for getting books, renewing books, and returning books. But I'm happiest with my system for putting books on hold. When I find out about a book I want to read, I immediately head to the library's website and put the book on hold. If it's hugely popular, I might be the 627th person on the wait list. That's fine, it'll eventually get to me and I'll be excited to read the book. (If I don't put it on hold because of the wait list I'll just forget about the book and never read it.) If it's an older book and I don't have to wait, I have a decision to make. Sometimes I have a ridiculous stack of books by my bed waiting to be read, most of them from the library. I may not feel I can get to that book right away. If so, I can put it on hold, but delay the hold for a week, a month, or more. Again, eventually the book will get to me and I'll be excited to read it.
The downside here is that when I don't get a book for quite some time, I cannot remember why I put it on hold. Sometimes it's obvious, but often I'm left wondering, "Where did I hear about this book? Who recommended it? What made me want to read it?"
That's how I was with Daniel H. Pink's Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. I picked it up from the library and it set by my bed for a while. I finally began reading it because it was going to have to be returned in a few days and I wasn't in the middle of anything else.
I'm so glad I did. I read it in no time. It's possible I enjoyed it so much and read it so quickly because it completely supports all I believe in about intrinsic motivation. It may not really be a fabulous book, but because it validates my beliefs I enjoyed it.
 For example, on page 46, Pink writes:
Amabile and others have found that extrinsic rewards can be effective for algorithmic tasks – those that depend on following an existing formula to its logical conclusion. But for more right-brain undertakings – those that demand flexible problem-solving, inventiveness, or conceptual understanding – contingent rewards can be dangerous.
The idea being that there is a time and place for extrinsic rewards, but that we have to be thoughtful and careful about how they are used. People are often confused when they visit my classroom because I do not have any sort of behavior management system (this was not always true). I believe my students will behave well because they are wonderful people, not because I am threatening or rewarding them. 
A lot of Pink's arguments are linked to Carol Dweck's work. Her book, Mindset, is one I reread often because of how it changed my thinking about teaching.
Pages 121-122:
Getting an A in French class is a performance goal. Being able to speak French is a learning goal. “Both goals are entirely normal and pretty much universal,” Dweck says, “and both can fuel achievement.” But only one leads to mastery. In several studies, Dweck found that giving children a performance goal (say, getting a high mark on a test) was effective for relatively straight-forward problems but often inhibited children’s ability to apply the concepts to new situations.
The idea here is not significantly different from the other quote, but ties it directly to school. Plus, it hits on my intense dislike of grades because I believe they are detrimental to genuine learning. Grades are an extrinsic motivator and, in my mind, make students focus on them rather than on asking questions, following their interests, challenging themselves, and learning deeply about something.
Reading this book, I spent a lot of time thinking about what this means in classrooms, of course. But I also thought about education in general. This quote, from pages 90-91 struck me: 
A sense of autonomy has a powerful effect on individual performance and attitude. According to a cluster of recent behavioral science studies, autonomous motivation promotes greater conceptual understanding, better grades, enhanced persistence at school and in sporting activities, higher productivity, less burnout, and greater levels of psychological well-being. 
I don't believe teachers (and possibly principals and others in education) feel any sense of autonomy at the moment. Instead of intrinsic motivation to do the best for our students, we are being threatened and offered rewards. 
One last quote, from page 76:
If you believed in the “mediocrity of the masses,” as he put it, then mediocrity became the ceiling on what you could achieve. But if your starting point was Theory Y, the possibilities were vast – not simply for the individual’s potential, but for the company’s bottom line as well. 
Too often, in education, both big picture and in individual classrooms, we are believing in the 'mediocrity of the masses' and that is going to limit our potential.