Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Math Literacy

An article in the Washington Post this morning got me thinking about how we teach reading and how we teach math. It seems to me that we've made gigantic strides in our teaching of language arts (reading, writing, word study) in recent years. There are phenomenal professional books out there, many of them written by classroom teachers, or individuals who only recently left the classroom. There are some good professional books about math, but they are fewer and often written by large groups of professors or others removed from elementary classrooms.

We've got a lot to learn about teaching math.

Virginia Commonwealth University math professor William E. Haver, who is involved in the partnership, said elementary teachers need to know far more than the standard curriculum. With a depth of knowledge, teachers can help children understand relationships between numbers and solve problems in different ways. Without it, teachers often rely on memorization and aren't well-equipped to help struggling students.

"Elementary math isn't elementary," Haver said. "There are a lot of deep ideas there. Usually, if a child doesn't get the right answer, there's a fair amount of good thinking along the way, but it got astray at some point. If you can pinpoint that problem, you're better off."

I think this is a bigger problem than just our schools. Our society has math phobia issues. It's acceptable to be bad at math and to hate math. Saying the same thing about reading is taboo. It seems unlikely that we'll manage major change in education without similar change in society.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

To Grade or Not To Grade

It's the end of the second quarter for us. That makes it my least favorite time each quarter. Most elementary school teachers in my district will tell you that report card time stinks because it requires bubbling grades in eight content areas (an academic grade and an effort grade) and ten word study areas. Then comments also have to be bubbled in. It is very time consuming and mind numbing.

I, however, hate it with an even greater passion. I can't figure out why I'm doing it (aside from the fact that I'm required to as a part of my job). What is the purpose of these grades? My husband, a college professor, firmly believes that grades are what motivates his students to do the work. He's probably right. But, I think it's true because we've trained kids with that motivation. I want my fifth graders to work because they want to learn, not because I'm going to judge them.

Another argument is that we use report cards to communicate with parents. Again, probably true. But, does a report card really communicate effectively? Telling a parent that their child earned a B in math with a G (good) for effort doesn't really say much. It doesn't let them know that the student excelled in geometry that quarter, but is still struggling to understand how to multiply and divide with decimals. It does a much better job of ranking students and making it easy to compare them to one another.

I would much rather spend two or three times as long on a more effective mode of communication for parents than to use a report card. I'd rather have to work even harder to make my lessons engaging and relevant to my students than to expect them to do the work in the hope of earning an A. One of my goals as a teacher is that my students love to learn. I think grades are in conflict with that goal.

(I think I'm in the minority in this area and I'd love to hear others' thoughts.)

Friday, December 14, 2007

Do as We Say and as We Do

I've been thinking a lot lately about one of the main reasons I love my school: the collaboration. Teachers here are always talking to one another and working together to improve their teaching practices and find new ways to help students. It occurs to me that we are modeling what we expect from our students. We often have our students work together to solve problems and to deepen their understanding and we work with them to make those collaborations effective. It's wonderful to be able to do the same.

My reflections on this are more elaborate at my most recent post on In Practice.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

During a meeting yesterday I warned a friend of mine that blogging about a meeting during it is like calling someone when you're drunk. I'm no longer in the meeting I feel a need to blog about, but it may still be too soon. However, blogging is cathartic for me so I'm moving forward with this even if I may say things I'll regret later.

I spent two hours today in a local screening meeting. We were discussing a student who has been at our school since head start. He's been on our radar as a student we are concerned about since at least first grade. He's very, very bright. I think that is actually part of the problem. Academically he is fine, as a result we feel like we're doing our job as a school. However, he has significant issues with social interactions. He frequently says things that are offensive, hurtful, even cruel. He does not understand that people are hurt by him. Many of us have been concerned that if he does not get help he will have serious problems in the future. We've been trying to get his mom to get counseling for him and/or the family. I firmly believe that he needs counseling and we will keep doing all we can to push for this.

This child is not easy to label. If he were we'd have dealt with this years ago. We discussed a wide range of possible ways to serve this child with an appropriate label: autism, emotional disabilities, or other health impairment. None seemed to fit. I'm fine with that. I don't feel a need to slap labels on students all willy-nilly. What matters the most to me is that we help students. I don't feel that I can give this child all he needs on my own. We kept returning to the idea of counseling. Again, I think that is critically important for this student.

But...I finally got so frustrated with the whole situation (he's in 5th grade, we can't keep waffling!), I gave a little speech.
In the past, when I've come to local screening, my goal has been to get a label for a child. This has nothing to do with our school. We will get kids what they need no matter what label they have, it's what we do. When I want a label for a child it's because I want to know that if they move or when they head off to middle school they will still get the services and accommodations they need in order to learn. I feel just the opposite with this kid. I don't care what label he does or doesn't have, I care that we figure out how to help him. I'm afraid that what we'll do is say that he doesn't fit any category, he needs counseling which his family needs to deal with, and therefore we wash our hands of this.
I don't normally do this sort of thing. In ten years I've been through a lot of local screening meetings. I've never felt a need to preach to the committee. I was close to tears today. In the end, I think we're going to create a 504 plan for this child (similar to an Individualized Education Plan but probably more appropriate for him). That's fine. But I'm still unclear on how we're going to help him. Maybe next week's meeting will answer that question for me.

By the way, it probably goes without saying, but this is a great kid. For all of the difficulties and challenges we face (he and his teachers) he has many wonderful qualities.

Friday, November 30, 2007


My four-year-old has just figured out how to truly use a computer independently. She uses the trackpad on my laptop fairly well. She can now choose videos to watch and play games on the preschool websites we open for her.

Neither my husband nor I did any direct instruction on using a computer. A while back her grandparents had a child-sized mouse and keyboard for her and probably taught her some things. But it's been a while since she was using them. However, she's sees us on the computer frequently (most likely too frequently) and has played games with us controlling things for a while now.

She's not even four and a half and I'm wondering when she'll get her first email address. How long before she joins social networking sites? When will we she begin shopping online? Will she have a blog soon? I'm excited and terrified by the possibilities.

Her grandparents are getting her an XO laptop for Christmas. I can't wait to see what she figures out how to do on it. Learning new technology is a challenge for me, just as learning a new language would be. However, at four it comes easily.

This has re-energized me about using technology with my students. Her ability to pick it up so quickly has reminded me that my students are capable of learning and utilizing technology as well. We'll be in the lap next week.

Famous Folks

We just completed a biography unit in writing. I was astounded by some of the subjects my students choose. Some wrote about typical subjects for 5th graders: Shakira, JK Rowling, Emma Watson, and such. But others were much more creative. They wrote about William Shakespeare, Pythagoras, Martha Graham, Emily Dickinson, Edward Lear, Pocahontas, Al Capone, and Edgar Allen Poe.

I gave them no guidelines on who to choose. It was completely up to them. I am fascinated by their choices. As an added bonus, I'm enjoying reading these much more than I would if they had all chosen pop culture icons. Possibly I should thank them.

My big question now is how much influence I (or the student teacher or their previous teachers) had on these subjects. Were their choices influenced by us, in which case I'd like to know how so that I can replicate it, or would they have made these choices regardless of outside influences?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


My 5th graders met for the first time with their head start (3 & 4 year old) buddies this morning. Some of the little ones were shy and uncomfortable and some of the older kids didn't really know how to interact with their buddies. However, on the whole, it was quite a success. I feel compelled to write about it because of what I noticed with one student.

One girl in my class, very bright, friendly, and well-adjusted, never seems to be enjoying anything we do. She's happy with her friends and jokes and plays around, but during lessons she has a flat affect and is very serious. Serious doesn't really explain it though; she seems almost unhappy, but not quite. I'm not really worried about her, but I'd like to see her smiling more.

As soon as she sat down with the little girl in head start, she softened. It was a visible thing. I felt as though I could see hard corners and stiff lines melt away. She leaned in to her buddy to read and talk about the book. She smiled at her, made eye contact, and encouraged her. Her body language was completely different from what I am accustomed to seeing. She seemed maternal almost.

I could have sat and watched the two of them the entire time we were there. Other partnerships went well. I saw other fifth graders being strong mentors; asking questions of their buddy, getting their buddy to talk about his/her thinking about the book, etc. But nothing compared to watching this girl.

We will meet with our buddies every week now. I haven't done this for a few years because I haven't been able to find the time. Today's experience left me kicking myself about that. This may not help my students earn better grades or score higher on tests, but they are learning and giving something so much more important. For at least one student this half hour may be the most important thing we do all week.

And I haven't even started truly reflecting on how this benefits the little ones!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Edublog Awards

The Edublog Awards' finalists have been announced. (I have to admit that I'm still new enough to the whole blogging thing that this wasn't on my radar. I'm still learning.) In Practice is one of the finalists in the Best Group Edublog category. It's been such a pleasure to write for and read this blog. These educators are dedicated professionals who give their all for their students and, in addition, share their thinking and expertise in the blogosphere.

Check out the various finalists in the different categories. There are so many fantastic blogs out there.

Reflections on Blogging

Doug, at Borderland, has written a post about educational blogging. It came at a time when I was already doing some serious reflecting on why I blog. I began blogging solely to force me to reflect because I don't do so as naturally as I would like. It has worked quite well for me. Blog posts float around in my brain constantly. The jury is still out on whether or not this makes me a better teacher. On the positive side, I do reflect more which I firmly believe improves my teaching. On the negative side, sometimes I have to stop in the middle of the day and have my students read silently so that I can write or I feel as though I'll burst.

My big thought from all this, and I promise there is one, is that this is why I've had my students start blogging. (There's nothing like the zeal of the converted.) I know what blogging has done for me as a writer and a teacher and I want that for my students. For me, blogging has been transformative.
I don’t see “transformation” as a particularly strong selling point for the blogging practice since transformative experiences are generally unsettling to people.
Doug makes a really good point here. Expecting this result for my students is ambitious and probably just a bit unrealistic. Knowing this won't stop me for having them blog, but hopefully it will mean that I'm not crushed when blogging doesn't change their lives as learners.

And, if by chance, one of them really latches onto this, it will have been worth it. And if not, it certainly gives me more to reflect on.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

High School History Class

I'm in New Mexico so that my daughters could visit (and meet, in the baby's case) their great-grandparents. A highlight for me was getting to spend the day with my aunt while she taught her high school history classes.

She begins each class period with a 'news journal'. Every morning she audio records 3-5 minutes of NPR. She writes on the board a sentence about several of the main stories from the segment with blanks. The students fill in the blanks as they listen. They spend a few minutes talking about the news. They are able to make connections to previous days and even weeks or months in the news. The Iraq war has come up on many occasions. They also make connections to history. Yesterday, when I was there, one story was about a virus that is resistant to drugs. Students were able to connect it to the plague they had recently studied. I was so impressed with how much more they will understand about the world around them and the history they study through this ten minute beginning to class. After the discussion they write a three sentence commentary to reflect.

I think this is such a fantastic practice because of their learning and their practice writing. However, having watched a day in a high school I think it is helpful for the teacher as well. The teachers are in the hallway during the transition between classes so they come in after the students are seated and have no time to get anything together. Playing the recording of NPR gives my aunt a few minutes to get organized and get her brain in gear for the next class. Smart on so many levels!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Testing Hell

Right now I'm administering a practice SOL (Standards of Learning) test to one third grader alone. He's being given the test alone because he is autistic and very easily affected and distracted by others. I'm glad that we are able to offer him this accommodation to the testing. However, I don't believe that we are really going to learn anything about his achievement through this process.

A multiple choice test is very difficult for him because he is so literal. He has trouble analyzing the various answers. He completed the sample question and choose an incorrect answer. When I asked him about it, he was able to explain his thinking (which made sense in a convoluted way). I believe that if he were to answer questions about these short texts without multiple choices, he would do quite well.

He also is unable to work for an extended period of time. Just looking at the first passage, which is about a page long, stressed him out. He spent the morning yesterday taking the math practice test and is now spending the afternoon taking the reading test. He kept asking me why he has to take these tests. I had no good answer for him. According to his classroom teacher, he is able to read longer texts, but broken up over time. They are working on his stamina while reading or working, but he isn't there yet. Taking this test is torture for him.

He is an unusual example because he is autistic. For him, time spent taking this test is not helping him learn and for us, it is not giving us useful information about his learning. But, he will still spend four days this year taking practice SOL tests and five days taking the actual SOL tests. That is five percent of the school days in the year.

While he is an unusual example, I believe that there are many students for whom testing is hell and about whom we learn little from the results. We give the test on one day of the year and expect that it will tell us all about the student's abilities and achievement. Many students, even in third grade, have test anxiety, which also impacts the results.

I'm not against accountability. I'm happy to open my classroom to anyone who wants to come in and see what is happening. I'm happy to show the various ways my students can and have demonstrated their learning. I have nothing to hide. But I'm tired of spending my precious time with students taking multiple choice tests.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Education through the Eyes of Mothers

DC Metro Moms spent yesterday blogging about education. I love reading this blog and was excited by the idea of them all focused on a topic so near and dear to my heart.

I think I posted comments on every single blog post from yesterday. And not for the reasons I had hoped. Again and again the posts were about parents struggling with the choice between public and private schools. I can understand that.
My issues with these various posts fell into two categories:
  1. sadness for families because of their local schools
  2. frustration with how public schools (and private) are judged
There are bad public schools; bad private ones too I'm sure. I sympathize with anyone whose neighborhood schools are not up to snuff.

However, many of these parents voiced frustration with the boring work students do in these schools, worksheet after worksheet. Then they also voiced disappointment with the test scores. My thinking is that those two things are closely linked. Schools begin to panic about test scores and resort to drilling students rather than teaching engaging, interesting lessons. Our focus, as a society, on test scores is resulting in mediocre teaching, at best.

There are a lot of ways to judge a school. I think that test scores is one of the least useful. The problem is, it is the easiest way.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Classroom Environment Illustrates Priorities

I've been out of my classroom for a couple of weeks now because an intern is independent teaching there. It's always fun for me to have an opportunity to do other things around my school. This time, I've been observing in some primary grades because I'd like to teach younger kids next year.

I spent most of today in two different classrooms. Somehow, observing in these two rooms opened my eyes to changes in classroom set-up. Neither of these rooms has much "teacher space." Each teacher has a small table for themselves - a place for their computer and some papers to deal with, but nothing big. Each has a bookshelf for their things and a filing cabinet. But, it would take some looking around the room to recognize the teacher's place. The fact that these teachers rarely spend time at their tables also adds to this. The focus in these rooms is on the students, their work, and their learning.

Both of these classrooms also have tables rather than desks for the students. This suggests that the focus is on collaboration, discussion, and team learning. Added bonuses to tables is that they take up less space per student than desks and are easy to move around as needed.

As I continue observing for the next week or two, I'll be looking more closely at classroom arrangements. The set up of a classroom is an immediate, clear clue about the atmosphere and priorities of that class.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

In Practice

I've been lucky enough to join a talented group of teachers and bloggers writing at In Practice. All of us work (or have worked) in Title 1 schools. I originally discovered the blog through Doug Noon who writes at Borderland. I've been impressed with and enjoyed his writing and was thrilled to discover another place to read him. Then, through In Practice, I discovered Michaele at Tending the Kinder-Garden. Alice Mercer is the driving force behind the site. These two women have become favorites of mine.

Reading the blog was wonderful, writing for it is an honor.
I've been doing a better job lately of keeping up with reading blogs than I have done with posting to mine. That's not a bad thing at all.

I've noticed, however, that the majority, by quite a bit, of the education blogs I read are written by men. I read blogs from all levels of education, including colleges and universities. I read blogs written by classroom teachers, resource specialists, and consultants.

I've been weeding out blogs and trying to cut it down to a more reasonable number. It's this process that made me note the gender difference. In other areas, I have more gender balance. I read blogs about parenting, children's literature, and some that are simply for fun. The parenting blogs I read tend slightly more towards women writers, but not by a lot. Those that I read for fun are just about equal. The children's literature blogs are almost all written by women, interestingly enough.

I'm left wondering why this is. Have I just not found the large number of well-written blogs by female educators yet or do they not exist? Is this a gender gap in technology? (The blogs in other categories would suggest this is not true.) Are there lots of female teachers blogging but because they do so in addition to all of their teaching and family duties they aren't promoting their blogs for us to find them easily?

I'm not looking to add a lot more to my blog reading, but I'd love to know about some fantastic women bloggers in the education realm. If you have any thoughts, let me know.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Great Education Podcast Meme

Michaele, over at Tending the Kinder-Garden, tagged me for a meme some time ago. I'm embarrassed to admit how long ago, so we'll let that go for now. She's looking for links to educational podcasts that I've listened to and enjoyed.

Sadly, I've not listened to any. I don't have an iPod and never seem to find a time to listen on my computer. However, her meme inspired me and I'm hoping to get an iPod in the near future to get started with this. I know that I've been missing some great stuff and I can't wait to start listening.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Baby Steps with Technology

I just overheard two teachers discussing a lesson one of them taught today. Her students are researching endangered animals and she is having them do their research independently (they are fifth graders). Ahead of time she set up a list of bookmarks for them on the server so that they had approved websites, including search engines, to get started.

This morning she got one cart of laptops from nearby and another cart from the second floor of our other building, not an easy job, so that each student would have a computer. Then, during the lesson, she showed them how to log onto the server to access the bookmarks. Only about five of the students were able to get logged in. For some reason, the other fifteen or so were locked out. She got them started on another website, but found the experience very frustrating, especially after so carefully setting up bookmarks. (As an aside, I've shown her for future use.)

I know that many educators, parents, and others are frustrated by how little many teachers use technology in their classrooms. I know that I don't use nearly as much as I should. I also know that my school district has done a pretty good job of supporting teachers with this. Each elementary school has a technology specialist full time who is there to support the use of technology in the classrooms. Each school also has another tech person a couple of days a week to do the troubleshooting and to fix problems. However, our full time person often gets stuck fixing things around the building because he's here more often. He's done a ton to offer workshops before and after school to help teachers and he's willing to work with anyone who asks. But most teachers don't. They have a lot on their plates already. I'm not sure how we move forward here. I'm about as open to using technology as possible and I read plenty to keep me up to date with the options for web 2.0 tools, but I still can't pull off what I think I should be doing. How do we manage to support teachers in a way that really helps them integrate this? What's the first step?

List of Loves

There are so many reasons I love teaching. After being out of the classroom for a week and a half, being back today was wonderful. So, here are a few of my favorite things:
  • when students ask a question I don't know the answer to (happened first thing this morning, what a way to start the day!)
  • learning for the sake of learning, not for grades or approval, but simply because they are fascinated by a topic - somehow we manage to stifle that as students grow older (great teachers rekindle it, but it is less natural as students age)
  • students getting so engaged in a discussion or project that we're late for lunch (or music or PE or art or library...)
  • unexpected words, phrases, or ideas that come from students - you never know what you'll hear in an elementary school
  • family atmosphere - we spend so much time together we become a family, with all the positive and negative aspects
  • being a rock star - elementary age students get shockingly excited to see teachers, their own or ones they recognize from around the school and they greet you as if you are famous
  • the growth we get to see - students change so much, so quickly in elementary school - it is encouraging to see how much they have learned and developed over time
I'm so lucky to have a job that adds to my quality of life (as a friend said).

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Teachers Have it Easy II

During our foray out to California, we had the opportunity to visit my sister's work. She is currently a project manager for Adobe. We had lunch in the cafe there (cheap because it is subsidized by Adobe and it was delicious) and checked out her work area. The building was open and inviting. She worked from home one of the days we were there and modified her hours to spend time with us on the other days. It was great.

It got me thinking, again, about life in education. This blog post considering treating students the way Google treats engineers just added fuel to the flame. I think the idea of 20% time for students is brilliant. But it also got me thinking about 20% time for teachers and a whole host of other wonderful perks.

I would love a subsidized, yummy lunch. I would love time to work on things I value as an educator. I would love more flexible hours. But, again, I'd be happy if people better understood the realities of teaching.

I took my laptop to California with me. My mother gave me a hard time about taking it, saying that she was sure I could survive a week without it and I certainly didn't need one more thing to carry (traveling with a four year old and an eight month old). She was especially shocked I was taking it when she realized that after the vacation I would be out of my classroom because a student teacher is taking over for four weeks. If I didn't have lessons to plan, what on earth would I need my laptop for? She is frequently surprised that I need to do so much planning now that I am in my tenth year. Why can't I just use what I did in previous years?

I don't want to suggest that my mother doesn't respect what I do. She does. Immensely. She does a lot to help me have enough time to do what I feel I need to do to be a good teacher. And she has listened to me for ten years talk about work. If she still doesn't really get it, I have little hope that anyone else will.

This sounds like complaining and I don't mean that to be true. I love my job. I love my school. I even love my school district. (The state I have less love for, but it's not too bad either.) But, I know how hard teachers work, how much of themselves they put into their jobs, and how important it all is. I'd like for families, politicians, and others to realize as well.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Exploring Science at the Exploratorium

I just got back from a trip to California for a family wedding and some time with my sister. We crammed a lot into a week, but one of the highlights was taking the girls to the Exploratorium. It may be the best designed museum I've ever visited (and I've visited a lot). As soon as I looked at the map of the museum I wanted desperately to take my class there. They had exhibits that address every unit we study in science. Of course, exhibits is probably not the correct term because that suggests something that you passively enjoy. Nothing at the Exploratorium is passive.

Our school district has worked hard to create science kits for each of the units we teach. As a result, lessons are very hands on and allow for a lot of constructivist learning and exploration. However, they all pale in comparison with the experiences at the Exploratorium. I kept trying to figure out how to recreate some of these items. Fortunately, the Exploratorium has done a fantastic job of creating online activities similar to what you can do at the museum. I'll be incorporating some of these activities in my classroom.

As wonderful as the online site is, I'm still wishing my students had the opportunity to visit such a museum. The Washington, D.C. area has many, many wonderful museums. But, it has no significant children's museum. The National Children's Museum, which I remember visiting as a child when it was the Capital Children's Museum, is scheduled to open in 2012. The previous museum closed in 2004. That's a long time to wait. The closest, hands-on, exploratory museum for kids is Port Discovery in Baltimore. It's a fun museum, but it pales in comparison with the Exploratorium.

I've visited the Exploratorium before, but somehow it was this visit that made me realize what museums can be. It also got me thinking about how to offer my students experiences like what they could get at the Exploratorium. I hope that one positive result of this visit will be that I stretch as a teacher of science. It's certainly an area that I can grow in!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Apology? Promise? Too Off Track to Know

I haven't posted in a while. Strangely enough I'm conflicted about that. I don't want to post simply for the sake of posting. But I also don't want to ignore this venue for too long.

It isn't that I haven't had ideas and things I've felt the urge to write about. But, the quarter ended so grades were due and I've had parent conferences. In addition, we're heading out of town tomorrow for a week. So, other things have dominated my time.

I'm hoping to get back on track in the next few weeks. I guess this post is just to make me feel better about not having posted. I'm sure this should tell me something about my relationship with blogging, but I don't want to analyze it too closely.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Teachers Have It Easy

I ran a 5K yesterday (thank you for letting me indulge in a little bit of smugness). It was an exceptionally well organized and run race. I was quite impressed. The race was hosted by the Navy Federal Credit Union and it began and ended on their campus. It is a beautiful campus with lots of trees and a small pond. What struck me the most however was the path that ran around the building and included an exercise course and equipment. Clearly the expectation is that before, during, or after work employees can work out there.

It got me thinking about the differences between the business world and education. Teachers can not take time to work out during their lunch hour (because it's not even close to an hour). Teachers can't arrive late or leave early without it being a huge hassle to get classrooms covered. And if you do, you know your students won't get the same level of instruction as if you were there. Teachers can't even make simple phone calls throughout the day or go to the bathroom at any given time.

I don't mean for this to sound whiny or to be complaining. The great majority of the time, I'm not too bothered by this. What I am bothered by is how little I think most people understand about the realities in a school and classroom. Even my husband, who is a college professor and who puts forth significant efforts to understand, doesn't really get it.

I'm not sure it's possible to fully comprehend without spending at least one complete day with a teacher. I just know that I'd feel a lot better about how teachers are viewed in our society if I thought more of the general public had a decent understanding of what it is truly like.

Title of this post from the book by Dave Eggers, Daniel Moulthrop, and Ninive Clements Calegari.

SOL Celebration

Before I begin ranting, it's important for me to mention that I love my school. I am so very lucky to teach there and I wouldn't trade it for the world. That said, every once in a while something happens there that drives me nuts. This time, I'm probably alone in my frustration.

On Friday, our administration arranged things so that all classrooms were covered for the first hour of the day so that we had time to relax. They also brought in a catered breakfast (from the culinary classes at the high school). Are you wondering why I'm frustrated by such generosity? All of this was done to celebrate the fact that we made AYP (annual yearly progress).

This was very kind of them. And we should celebrate this fact. But...

Celebrating SOL scores gives them an even greater importance. Our principal made a point of saying that we had made AYP without sacrificing best practice instruction. And I think she's right. But I'm worried about our priorities. Having such an elaborate celebration sends a message that these scores are really important. They are important, but so are many other things we do at school. I don't believe that SOL scores are more important than our Developmental Reading Assessment scores, our number of students qualifying for gifted services, or the number of students being suspended. I throw out those things, not because I think they are exceptionally important, but because they are just as easily quantified as SOL scores.

I'm concerned that we are defining ourselves by these scores. We need to see the big picture of what we are doing with students and why. Test scores should just be one small piece of that picture.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Philosophy of Education

If you went through a traditional college education program you most likely had to write your philosophy of education at least once, possibly numerous times. Then you probably had to have one to turn in with job applications. Writing this philosophy is something young/new teachers do fairly often.

Old/experienced teachers don't end up doing so. Although the good ones think about it without realizing quite a bit. I've been thinking about it because, in my tenth year of teaching, I have to write one. I wouldn't have chosen to spend a lot of time writing it, if the choice were mine. But I'm finding the process to be beneficial. I'm not yet ready to post anything concrete for my philosophy, but the reflection required and the synthesis I'm doing is helping me grow as a teacher.

I'm not a naturally reflective person and I think that keeps me from growing as a teacher as much as I would like. This blog has pushed me to do more deep thinking about my teaching and about education in general. I feel lucky to have found a way to make this happen for me. In the past it took an external impetus of some sort to force me into reflection (graduate classes, National Board process, working with student teachers). While those are all wonderful, and I still take classes and work with student teachers, I'm glad to have discovered a way to reflect more regularly and on topics that I choose rather than reflecting solely in response to others' requirements or needs.

Thoughts about my philosophy will be showing up here over the next few weeks I'm sure. If you have any thoughts to share, I'd love to hear them!

Blog Observations

I read a wide selection of blogs regularly. They fall into categories of education/teaching, parenting, children's literature, and random fun stuff. And then I blog in three different places, here, This Must Be Thursday, and a blog my husband and I keep about our daughters.

Recently I've noticed that I only manage to find the time to do my blogging on the weekends. Between teaching and being a mom I can't get it done during the week. That doesn't bother me, but it appears to make me different from the majority of bloggers I read. Very little seems to get posted on the weekends, but a ton is happening during the week. This is true in all of the categories I read. I'm left wondering what makes my life so different from everyone else.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Computer Literacy

I was reading the various feeds to my Google Reader a few minutes ago. Reading one specific post my four-year-old noticed that I was using an arrow as I read. She asked if I was pushing the up or down arrow. I told her that I was using the down arrow. She looked at the screen and noticed the text scrolling up. She asked, "Why is it going up if you are pushing down?"

Good question.

Who Knows Best?

I've read a couple of blog posts lately that have done two things:
  1. made me think about who makes decisions in school districts and who should really be making those decisions
  2. made me grateful to teach where I am
Sherry, at Sherry Technically Speaking, wrote about technology decisions from the point of view of a middle school teacher. She voices frustrations with computers being removed, filtering of websites, and more. The comments there add a lot to an already worthwhile post.

Jeff, at Techist, wrote about a similar issue from the point of view of a college professor. He doesn't face these issues at a university (although, give them time) but has run into trouble accessing sites when he presents to K-12 teachers.

I find the two posts interesting lenses on the same issue. Sherry is venting about her situation, which is faced by many teachers in the public schools. We can identify with what she has to say. Jeff is looking at this from a more academic stance and considering the reasons for such filters and the consequences.

Read them both. Together they help show a fuller picture of this issue and the challenges facing all of us.

I know there are many other wonderful posts out there on this issue, but these two really struck me.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Top 5 Lists in Grade 5

We're halfway through the first quarter! Last week was the fifth week of school for us so my class did five Top 5 lists to celebrate Week 5 in Grade 5. I had the students brainstorm their own thoughts for the list over the past weekend. We collected one item for each list per student and then voted. I was alternately impressed, surprised, and disturbed by their choices. I'd never done this before, but I'll be doing it again for the fascinating insights into their thinking. One of my goals was to have our top 5 lists be more than simply lists of favorites. Here are the lists:

Top 5 Books that Made Us Think
  1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (#7)
  2. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
  3. The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn and Hal Iggulden
  4. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (#5)
  5. Eragon by Christopher Paolini
(I haven't read #3 or #5. I think I better get with it. I have to say that #2 is one of my all time favorites so I'm thrilled to see it on the list.)

Top 5 Authors that Move Us
  1. J. K. Rowling
  2. Sharon Creech
  3. Christopher Paolini
  4. E. D. Baker
  5. Sara Nickerson
(I haven't read anything by #3, #4, or #5. Again, I think I better get with it. I love Sharon Creech. Good for these kids for recognizing her genius.)

Top 5 Famous Virginians
  1. Pocahontas
  2. Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson
  3. Thomas Jefferson
  4. Harriet Tubman
  5. William Henry Harrison
(We study Virginia history in fourth grade so I figured my students would have lots of ideas here. Mostly they did, but I had to nix Abe Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and Helen Keller. I let Harriet Tubman in, although calling her a Virginian is a serious stretch. And really, Stonewall Jackson is number two on their list? And William Henry Harrison makes the list at all? Are they crazy? No George Washington, James Madison, George Mason, Maggie Lena Walker, Arthur Ashe, Robert E Lee - even Harry F Byrd, Sr would make more sense to me. Oh well. I blame their fourth grade teacher.)

Top 5 Most Beautiful Math Concepts
  1. Challenge 24
  2. Square Roots
  3. 2 Teach is + 2 Touch Lives = 4 ever
  4. Multiplication
  5. Multiplying by 9
(Here, and on the science list, they were hindered by not really knowing what to think of the title of the list. I decided not to elaborate, but to let them take it where they would. Challenge 24 is a math game that they love. #3 fascinates them because of the play between numbers and words. #4 is just lame.)

Top 5 Biggest Science Ahas!
  1. Atoms
  2. Animals
  3. Weather
  4. The sun is one of the smallest stars.
  5. Light
(We are studying light right now so I'm not surprised to see it. Weather and the solar system are studied in fourth grade. I'm not sure where atoms came from, but it is the mascot for their high school - unusual I know.)

I'd love to see what other classes come up with. Then maybe I could determine if my kids are as strange as they seem or more like fifth graders everywhere.

Monday, August 27, 2007


We in education seem to be addicted to acronyms. NCLB (No Child Left Behind) is probably one of the best known, however.

Several years ago, when NCLB was just getting started, Carol Ann Tomlinson spoke extensively about the damage it would do to our gifted students(GT = gifted and talented). Faced with having to make all students meet benchmarks, teachers would not be able to focus any real attention on students who were likely to pass tests without our support.

I believe, and it seems I'm not alone, that she was correct in her prediction. In some ways, this seems like a no-brainer. Of course schools will focus on students who might not pass the test. We will be judged harshly based on those scores. If students are likely to pass, with or without us, they can go ahead and do so.

As a result, those students who naturally do well in school or who have lots of family support for their education or who simply test well are likely to be allowed to float along without being challenged academically. It seems to me that all that NCLB has done is change which children are left behind.

Saturday, August 25, 2007


Preschool is clearly on my mind right now. I believe in the importance of the learning that happens prior to kindergarten. However, I'm skeptical that the plan in Texas to accredit preschools is really going to improve that learning.
Children should come into kindergarten able to identify some letters of the alphabet and read basic words, such as "cat," Dr. Landry said. They also should get along with other children and follow directions.
I'm not convinced that children should be able to do all of those things. We've already made kindergarten much more academic than it used to be, it seems unfair to do the same thing to preschool.
Lyn Voegeli, who runs private preschools in Richardson and Frisco, worries that the pressures tied to accountability in public schools will trickle down. She doesn't want to see preschoolers poring over worksheets instead of a puzzle or a book.
Exactly my fear. So much research has shown the importance of play for young children in their learning. It's not hard to imagine the move to worksheets happening.

States are pumping more money into pre-kindergarten programs because research shows an early start can narrow the educational gap between poor and wealthier students.

But Texas is ahead of the curve in holding the programs accountable, said Jonathan Plucker, an educational psychologist who heads Indiana University's Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

"It makes perfect sense that we put some of these things in place for accountability purposes and for parents," Dr. Plucker said.

We need to educate parents to be sure that they understand what is actually important and valuable for their children at different developmental stages.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

K-8 Schools

I finished a master's degree in Social Foundations of Education a few years ago. It was a fantastic experience and prompted me to think deeply about various large issues in education. One issue that interests me greatly is the idea of K-8 schools.

Prince George's county is discussing the possibility of expanding the number of K-8 schools in their district.

"We were having some challenges with our middle-schoolers and felt that if we could put them, many times with their brothers and sisters, they would become the leaders, they would become the models," Smith said. "They are the models for the younger kids. Their behavior is much better. They're much more willing to listen to adults, much more willing to help everyone in the school."

She said another benefit is that teachers across several grades can communicate more easily, allowing students to receive more consistent and focused education over several years.

Personally, I believe that middle schoolers should be shipped off to another planet for those two (or even three) years. They don't like themselves, which is not surprising given how unlikeable they are. (This is based mostly on my memories of middle school.) However, given the likelihood of that happening, I believe that K-8 schools is the next best option. Isolating students at that age seems like a bad idea.

The design of K-8 schools is critical for their success. The communication and collaboration across the grade levels is also important. But, it seems to me to be an idea worth trying.


One of the downsides of teaching in a modified calendar school is the number of meetings we have to attend now. As the rest of the school district is gearing up to get started there are numerous meetings going on. This week I was out of the building Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday for three different meetings. (I hope my students remember me next week!)

One interesting facet of attending these meetings now, a month into the school year, rather than before school started, is that I have less patience for my time being wasted. If I have to be out of the classroom then I expect my time to be used well.

In all the meetings, at least three-quarters of the information could have been handled in email. In two of the meetings PowerPoint presentations were read to us (a personal pet peeve). The most useful time in each meeting was the opportunity to talk, plan, organize, and work with one or more colleagues. That time was essential. It also allowed us to reflect and process information we had been given. Frequently so much information is crammed into meetings for educators that we have no time for processing. The result is that we don't make use of the information because we haven't been able to figure out how it affects us, how to make it our own.

Should I end up in a role in which I am planning meetings or professional development for teachers I want to remember two things (at least):
  1. Respect teachers' time. Every moment in meetings and PD should be valuable and worthwhile.
  2. Give them time to reflect and process.
If those two things were at the forefront of the minds of anyone planning meetings I have to attend, I would have a lot more interest in being there.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Governor Kaine & Campaign Promises

One of Tim Kaine's campaign promises two years ago was universal pre-school. This is a popular concept with parents (not surprising given the cost of good child care). However, it's an expensive proposition.

I'm a firm believer in the importance of those early years in a child's life. Watching my two girls and seeing from a distance my various nieces and nephews, I've come to recognize how much powerful learning happens long before kids begin school. There are many families who are unable to offer their children the opportunities they need to be as successful as possible when they reach school age. (I'm sure there are also families who simply don't do so. It doesn't matter, the children are the ones who pay the price and that's criminal.)

Kaine is now proposing to expand publicly funded pre-school for children in families that qualify for reduced lunch (currently only families who qualify for free lunch receive free pre-school). This would expand the program to 17,000 more children and cost $75 million a year. It's not perfect, but it's a step in the right direction.

A Washington Post article about Kaine's plan quotes James B. Hunt, Jr., former governor of North Carolina, about this issue.

Ask [legislators] what they do for K-12; they fund it 100 percent. Ask them what they do for higher ed; they fund it. This is more important," Hunt said. "This is necessary for those other things to work.

What a simple, powerful statement.

Reading Recovery Earns Accolades

The federal What Works Clearinghouse (love the name!) has just published a review of beginning reading programs. (Education Week has an interesting article about it.) The What Works Clearinghouse does not easily recommend any program. The reading programs they reviewed are looked at in four areas, alphabetics, fluency, comprehension, and general reading achievement. They are found to have positive effects, potentially positive effects, mixed effects, no discernible effects, potentially negative effects, or negative effects. Only one program, out of twenty-four, showed positive and/or potentially positive effects in all four areas.

Just one program was found to have positive effects or potentially positive effects across all four of the domains in the review—alphabetics, fluency, comprehension, and general reading achievement. That program, Reading Recovery, an intensive, one-on-one tutoring program, has drawn criticism over the past few years from prominent researchers and federal officials who claimed it was not scientifically based.

Reading this made me want to shout from the rooftops, "Reading recovery works!" Of course it does. In reading recovery trained teachers meet one-on-one with struggling students everyday to read and write. Having observed reading recovery lessons in my school, I have seen firsthand the power in the structure and time spent with these students.

The review is quite fascinating to see. There are very few programs that have earned 'positive effects' in any area much less in multiple. This may be simply because the What Works Clearinghouse is unwilling to slap that label on without significant support for it. Or, it could be that many of our reading programs do not address the full range of skills necessary to read well.

Try and Try Again

Organized Chaos had a fantastic post last week about the trouble with education. The gist of her thinking is that it is impossible to know exactly what to do at all times to meet the needs of all kids.
You can do everything by the book and still have the kids fall apart. Your lesson can look perfect and the kids can learn nothing. Your lesson can look like a disaster but actually be successful. And sometimes there is no way to know how it's going to turn out.
It's hard to accept the idea that so much is up in the air all the time, that we control so little in the classroom. And that is a major challenge, but it is also part of the joy. Getting to know our students, learning their personalities, needs, interests, talents, styles and such is the key to teaching them well. Doing all of this takes time and energy, things teachers may have very little of.

There's no panacea. We do the best we can everyday and when we screw up, we start over, giving our best again.

Failing Students

Standing at the copier on Friday, a colleague showed me a test taken by a student in her class. This young man is identified as having learning disabilities and took a modified version of this math test with one-on-one support to ensure he understood the directions and questions. In spite of all of this, he earned a D. Her question to me was what to do. Should she accept that the modified test and extra support should have been enough and record the D?

I wasn't sure what to say to her. This question is one I have struggled with for years.

Finally I asked her if she thought he understood the concepts being tested. She said he didn't. My response then was that it doesn't matter how much the test was modified or how much support he was given or if he had the opportunity to take the test again. If he doesn't understand the material then the test is irrelevant. He needs to learn the concepts first.

The conversation brought me back to one of my biggest concerns in education today. We (teachers, students, parents, etc.) get so caught up in grades that we often lose sight of the actual learning. It doesn't really matter what grade a child earns; what matters is the depth of their understanding about the concepts.

If we know a child doesn't understand and hasn't learned something, what is the purpose of giving a test? Wouldn't our time be better spent teaching?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Web 2.0 Challenges

I've gotten motivated to really try some exciting things in technology with my students this year. BlackBoard now offers us wikis and blogs. We've got five wikis going (teamwork discussion, books list, science research questions, "Math Curse" by Jon Scieszka exploration, and interesting websites) so far. In addition, each student has a blog. They'll use these to write about their reflections on their reading and respond to one another. I anticipate other uses of the blogs as well, but we'll start here.

The challenge is that there is no way for me to know quickly when any of these items have been updated. I want to monitor them to be sure that the content is appropriate and to ensure that students are not leaving comments for one another that are unacceptable. However, the RSS feed option is turned off because of security concerns. So, my only option is to look at each wiki and each blog and click on each individual page and set of comments. That's five wikis and twenty blogs. It starts to seem like it isn't worth my time after all.

I really want this to work. I love the idea that using the wikis allows for collaboration and discussions that can continue beyond our limited time at school. Writing on the blogs offers a more authentic experience and wider audience than simply writing for me. Any advice on how to do this without spending hours clicking the mouse?

Friday, August 10, 2007

Back to School Night Rethought

Thanks to Dan and to some tech folks in my county, I'm rethinking PowerPoint. That's a good thing. The bad thing is, in typical fashion for me, I'm doing it last minute. So, these slides for Back to School Night don't impress me greatly, but they feel like I'm moving in the right direction.

I teach in a school with many different languages spoken at home and families from very diverse backgrounds. I hope that giving them a presentation with more visuals and less text will help them better understand my philosophy and goals for the year.

Next year I'd like to use pictures of students doing many of the activities I talk about. I included some of that this year, but not nearly enough. And these images don't do as good a job of illustrating the ideas behind them as I would like (which is what I get for trying to put it together in two days). I think it is an improvement over a presentation full of words that is either read to them or talked over while they try to read. I sent them home with a page of information summing up what I had discussed. I'll post this presentation and that page on our class site for those who weren't there or who were but would like to look more closely at things.

I'm not a fan of PowerPoint, but I hope that I'm becoming a more intelligent user of the tool.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Homework Reflections

Tim, over at Assorted Stuff, posted about Jay Mathews' article in the Washington Post about homework. Tim's opening thought echoed my response to the article.

It doesn’t happen often, but this morning I find myself in agreement with Jay Mathews.

A colleague emailed the article to me and a couple of other teachers, stating that she likes the idea. I had to agree. Mathews is recommending that we back off of homework in the elementary school. His main point is that we should just have kids reading and not spend time on other busy work. He doesn't believe this is a good idea for middle schools or high schools; which feels to me like someone who is still clinging to his old beliefs and is unwilling to break with tradition too quickly.

I have struggled with the idea of homework for ten years now. The first issue I faced was that I don't want to grade all of it. I can find work for my students to do at home, and most of it will be at least somewhat worth their time. But then I need to do something with it. And I don't want to. There are more important things for me to be doing as a teacher.

So, last year I drastically changed my homework expectations and requirements. My students read every night (that's been true for years) and complete a math log (this involves playing math games or reflecting on a 'math moment' in their day). The only other homework they have regularly are quotes and riddles. I give them two quotes a week to respond to. They write reflections and share their thinking about the quotes. We discuss their thoughts on Fridays. The riddles come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but are essentially brain teasers of different sorts. I don't expect every student to find the answer to all of them, but I hope that attempting them is stretching their thinking a little. My goal with this homework is to have students who are thinking more deeply.

Tim's post hit on one thing I've been debating for this school year. He is talking about what high schoolers should be doing, but I think it applies to my fifth graders, too.

And that writing should be for an audience outside of the closed classroom and go beyond the formal, structured assignments traditionally imposed in class.

Whether this is on a blog available to the whole world, a closed discussion board, or somewhere else isn’t as important as students having the experience of reflective writing in a format that can be read, and commented on, by other than the teacher.

I know that many of my students don't have access to the internet at home, so I haven't been able to figure out how to make this work. But I would love to have them writing about these quotes on a wiki or blog. Tim's comment that what is important is having writing read by people other than the teacher really hits home for me. I'm going to keep mulling over how to make this work.

One Week Down

It's astounding how quickly time passes in an elementary school. We've finished the first week already.

This year I managed to get through the entire first week without teaching any content. It may be the first time I've done that. We organized supplies and got everything set up to facilitate our learning this year. We've read a lot of books together. We've had many discussions about books and organization. We've played math games and talked about strategies. We've had morning meetings in which we shared about ourselves. And we've done lots of teamwork activities together.

Next week we'll get started with some curriculum, but not too much. I firmly believe that I've built a better foundation for our year than I ever did before.

We'll see if that holds true as the year continues.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Power of Routine

My big plans to post about the various classes that I took (am taking) this summer has failed. The kids start school tomorrow and everything gets back to normal.
This has proven to me that the importance of routine in our lives is as true for adults as it is for kids. As teachers we work hard to establish routines in the start of the year in order to ensure a smooth year of learning. I've noticed with my own children how important sticking with our routine is. Now I've learned that it is just as important for me.
Hopefully, as my routine returns to normal I'll manage to finally post about those classes.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Other Side

Summer (brief though it may be) offers me the chance to do a lot of the focused learning that I never manage to get to during the school year. So, this summer I'm taking four different classes. One class, Principalship K-12, is already finished. It met on a Saturday from 9-5 and then Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 8:30-4:30. Long days, but a fantastic class. Now I'm taking three online classes. One is on Geometers Sketchpad. I signed up for the class to learn how to use the software, but I'm learning more about geometry than I dreamed was possible. Another class is on digital portfolios, something I want to implement with my kids this next year. Finally, I'm taking a class on the read/write web.

The principalship class is part of my endorsement in supervision and administration. The other three classes are simply because they interest me. I'll be blogging more on these classes in the future. And on how it feels to be on the other side of the classroom.

My reason for mentioning them is that I've been thinking about how teachers spend their summers. Many people think teachers have it made because we get our summers off. And technically, they're right. However, the teachers I know spend that time doing a ton of professional learning - and they don't get paid a thing. They take classes, attend workshops, read professional books,plan, and more. Teachers, as a general rule, want to do the best job they can for their students. In order to do this, they work long hours during the school year and spend their free time continuing their own learning. I'm not sure what this means or why it feels so important to me. But, it does feel important.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Thanks for Technology Thoughts

Thanks to Assorted Stuff I've gotten some great tips and thoughts on how to improve the work my students do with technology. I think one of the most challenging aspects of teaching is the isolation and lack of opportunity to communicate with others in the profession. Blogs are an intriguing new way to encourage discussions and create a community. I'm lucky to teach at a school with a staff that works hard to collaborate and deepen their thinking together and an administration that offers us many opportunities to do so. However, my thinking and teaching are also influenced by the many blogs I read. And I am grateful to those bloggers for sharing their thoughts and questions and for the catalysts they are for me.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Test Strategies

To comply with the rules for administering our state standardized tests several weeks ago, I covered up or took down anything academic on our walls. When the students walked in on our first day of testing they remarked on how our room felt like a cave with all the walls covered with brown paper.
The day after our last test I was too lazy to take the paper down. Instead, I gave the students permission to "vandalize" the walls. They were able to write on the paper things they had done to be good test takers. Some of what they wrote were strategies we had taught them; eliminating stupid answers, rereading, underlining, and such. Other thoughts were purely their own.

I took pictures of all of their comments for a couple of reasons. They had a lot of good ideas and strategies that I want to remember to share with future groups. But mostly, their answers are so them. Looking at the pictures will immediately conjure up these students. Even for those comments that aren't signed, the authorship is obvious to me. Their personalities are so clear through these thoughts.

I can't stand the testing and I hate the complex procedures we go through to be sure the tests are secure and fair. I'm far from convinced that these tests are a valid assessment of my students' learning (and I say this as a GT teacher whose students will likely all pass all tests). No one-time, multiple choice test is going to even come close to fully showing a student's abilities, knowledge, and talents.

As a side note, these brown papers were used in another classroom before hanging on my walls and then used to create backgrounds for our wax museum project. We recycle every chance we get!

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Challenges of Working with Technology

My 5th graders are working on an interesting social studies project. We're testing it out for the county and trying to cram it into the last few weeks. On the whole, it's a great project. The kids have to think about global interdependence across time, cultures, or both. They can look at it through art, literature, trade, government, etc. It's a rare chance for them to make a lot of choices about their learning and how they present their findings. Our technology teacher has been a huge help. The technology office, social studies office, and librarians did a lot beforehand to set things up for us. There is very little more that could have been done to make this project successful.

And yet...certain things are driving me insane. Many of my kids are creating PowerPoints. A couple of them are fantastic. Most are not. They are so focused on making the slides look cool, transition in interesting ways, and have fun graphics that the content is getting no focus. A lot of kids are creating websites. Again, a couple are really well done. Most are so focused on having fun with the technology (and posting on each other's guestbooks) that their content stinks.

Should I give them opportunities earlier in the year and throughout the year to work with these technologies in the hope of getting this out of their systems? Should I require a storyboard of their PowerPoint or website before I allow them on a computer so that I can get the focus on the content before they can play? Any other thoughts?

I really want to do this project again next year - and others like it. But I clearly need a better plan.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Word Study

Again, I'm concerned about my ability to teach with our phenomenal reading teacher in my room next year. I've blogged about our text type units of study in order to remember how to do that. The other area I'm finally feeling some confidence in is word study and I don't want that to fall apart.

So, here's how it has worked. We identify a focus for the unit. We find a text with examples of words that fit our focus (words with apostrophes, prefixes, etc.). The class does a shared reading of the text and we look closely at those words. Then the students search in their reading for words that fit the unit. For a couple of days we collect a huge list of the words on a chart and in their word study notebooks.

The next step is to sort the words. Sometimes we tell the students how to sort them and sometimes we allow for an open sort. Eventually the goal is to have the words sorted in a way that will help us learn to spell them. Students then sort the words in their word study notebooks.

From that point we work on creating generalizations about the unit. Ideally students can create these independently but we help guide as needed. The generalizations then get typed up and glued into their word study notebooks.

The other piece of word study is buddy study. Students choose a word list (words from the unit of study, high frequency words, and words from their word to learn list) of about 8-10 words. Using that list they build, mix, fix with the magnetic letters, then look, say, cover, write, check. We do a buddy check (like a spelling test, but mostly as practice) then making connections followed by the actual buddy test.

Goals for next year:
  • Move through units more quickly once the routine is established.
  • Possibly do two units of study before doing the buddy study piece.
  • Have more of the unit and buddy study as homework once the routine is established.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

What are we doing wrong in math?

Math instruction has been on my mind a lot in recent years. My school has done so much to learn about how to most effectively teach language arts that I have a lot of confidence in that area. However, I feel as though we have a lot to learn about math. I've come to the conclusion that my school is typical in this matter. As a society we do not have the most positive attitude towards math. It would be highly embarrassing as an adult to say that you can't read, but it is perfectly acceptable to say that you don't do math. Why is that? What message does this send to kids?

Because I feel so good about my instruction in writing and reading I keep looking for ways to make math more like those workshops. So far, I've had minimal success at best. I have come to one significant (I think) conclusion; in language arts we are teaching our students skills but in math we are teaching content. In language arts we teach students how to make connections as they read, how to organize a piece of writing, or how to write strong leads; skills they could use in any text they read or write. In math we teach students how to multiply or divide, but we limit the use of the skill to specific instances. Instead of teaching students to think like mathematicians we are teaching them to follow set rules. We teach students to be readers and writers. We should be doing the same in math.

I just don't have any idea how we do it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Text Type Units of Study

I've had the luck of working with our phenomenal reading teacher for two years now. She and I have co-taught reading, writing, and word study for two and a half hours a day. It has been the greatest learning experience of my career and more fun than one deserves to have at work. However, it will soon come to an end. She will move on to another classroom next year and I will go through severe withdrawal.

One of the things that I think has gone exceptionally well during these two years has been our text type units. I need to review them for myself in the hopes that I will remember how to do it on my own next year. We've taught our students how to write personal narratives, essays, and reports. We spend about one quarter on each unit. The first quarter we focus on writer's notebooks and the writing process.

At the beginning of a unit we immerse the students in the text type. We read aloud or do shared readings of multiple examples of the text type. After reading many we guide the students in developing a list of characteristics of the texts we have read (we still may not have named the text type). After creating a comprehensive, or at least significant, list we write one together as a class. This may take a couple of weeks. We plan, draft, revise, and edit it together.

The next step is a preassessment. Students spend one or two days writing their own text without any support from teachers. From these examples we are able to determine what areas of focus we need for the unit (leads, organization, homonyms, voice, paragraphing, etc.) It takes several days to really look over their preassessments, so during that time we do some writer's notebook lessons that support the text type (maybe interviews or notetaking ideas for reports, for example).

Finally, we begin teaching focus lessons to help students become better writers of the current text type. These lessons are based on our notes from their preassessments. Some lessons are for the entire class, other items are focused on guided writing groups of a few students, and some things are addressed through individual writing conferences. During this time students are independently writing about anything they wish.

Near the end of our focus lessons students being working on their "big game" text (thank you, phenomenal reading teacher!). In this text they should be considering all of the things we have been working on during the unit. For this text we will conference with them for revisions and edits and anything else they need. A date will be set for final completion (many finish early) and a date for a writing share with another class.

There are still some areas in which I want to improve my instruction during these text type units. One piece that is a challenge for me is sending students to look at mentor texts. I need to be sure that I have a plethora of examples and that students understand how to turn to mentor texts to help them improve their writing. It would also be beneficial to determine a way to streamline the shared writing of our example. It is a very important piece, but hugely time consuming. Next year will be challenging as I attempt to do all of this on my own. Fortunately, I've had the best teacher and learning experience possible.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Reading Recovery & the Miracles of Primary Education

First off, I have to say that I am an upper grade teacher. I have spent the last nine years in fourth or fifth grade. I love the students' independence, their ability to discuss topics at such a mature level, their sense of humor, and their attention spans. However, I'm becoming fascinated more and more with the little ones. Maybe it is because I have young children. Maybe I'm reverting (I did my student teaching in K and 2). Who knows? But this new interest led me to observe a reading recovery lesson last week.

Reading recovery, to the best of my knowledge, is designed for first graders who are having difficulty with reading and/or writing. They receive one-on-one instruction every day for 12-20 weeks from a specially trained teacher. I was so impressed with the lesson I observed. I must admit that I truly believe a lot of the credit goes to the teacher, as she is amazing. However, I think the structure of reading recovery deserves praise as well. The student did word work, reading, and writing in the span of half an hour. Reading recovery teachers (at least at our school) only work with four students at a time. They each do reading recovery half a day. To the uninitiated I'm sure that sounds like nothing, but those half hours are intense. What struck me the most was that the student was not only learning strategies and skills for reading and writing. While that is a huge part of the lesson, it is not all of it. The student was being forced to be a responsible learner. The teacher reminded the child of her jobs (check the endings as you read, use your thumbs to help with that) and pushed her to make sure she was correct (what can you do to check it, is that what you expect to see, are you right). In this way the student was responsible for making sense of her reading and writing. As teachers we are often in a rush and have such a strong desire to help students that we end up giving them the answers. Or, just as bad, we only question them when they are wrong. As a result, they assume they are wrong anytime we push them to check. This first grader was questioned throughout the lesson when she was right and wrong. She had to be sure she was understanding; no one was doing it for her. This is a critical life skill.

I so enjoyed this observation I'm going back this week!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Extremes of Standardized Testing

Our school began our spring, state-mandated, standardized tests yesterday. The first group of students to endure this challenge are our fourth graders. Yesterday's test was math, which is a marathon of questions. At the end of the day I asked one of the fourth grade teachers how it had gone. She said she had students at both extremes. I took this to mean students who took their time and took it seriously versus students who zipped through the test. That's not what she meant at all. She had one young woman who had been coming in everyday for the last week stressing out about things she could not remember how to do: adding decimals, finding the mean, the median, and the mode, etc. This student bawled for the first hour of the test necessitating a call to the testing coordinator because it was a disruption for other students. The other end of the spectrum was a student who took the test in another room in a small group. He fell asleep.

I'm not sure what these two examples suggest about our culture of testing. I think it can't be too good, though. As teachers we walk a fine line trying to be sure our students take the tests seriously without falling apart at the seams. Students begin taking these tests at the age of eight. That is awfully young to feel the burden of test scores. I worry that learning for the joy of learning will quickly be lost when we subject students to more and more standardized testing.

Monday, May 07, 2007

I saw a local high school's spring musical this weekend. The production was well done and we thoroughly enjoyed it. I was struck, however, by the extreme whiteness of the cast. I teach in an elementary school that is 15% white. I looked up the high school and it is 61% white. That doesn't seem so overwhelming, but in our area that is significant. This would have been simply an interesting observation except for a discussion I had later that afternoon.

Speaking with colleagues of my husband (college professors) about an acquaintance who is looking to relocate in the area, they said they had recommended this high school to him. I mentioned my experience and observation about the racial demographics. They seemed quite surprised by it. I was left with the sense that these individuals did not believe that the demographics played any role in the school's reputation, something which seems like an obvious factor to me. I agree that this high school is well respected, but I believe that its population is a part of that. Fewer than 10% of students there receive free or reduced lunches (for our school district almost 20% do). Almost 60% of students at my elementary school do. The high school we feed to is not as well respected, even though they had a principal for years who was award-winning and very highly thought of. Race and socio-economic levels are a large part of what determines a child's fate - in school and out.

Monday, April 30, 2007


I haven't gotten involved in all the discussions of technology in education for a variety of reasons. One reason is that there are so many people who are much more highly qualified than I am to weigh in on these issues. However, my school-provided laptop crashed last night. It managed to crash in such a way that even my husband could do nothing to fix it. The tech person at school turned it on this morning, said, "Interesting." Then, "It may be a few days." Luckily, everything is saved to our server so even if my laptop is done for good I haven't lost my work. Also luckily, I have another laptop temporarily while mine gets help. However, this laptop is clearly not mine. It doesn't have all of my links saved, things are not formated the way I want, the little things are a problem.

Obviously, this technology snag does not really impact my students. But dealing with the challenge has taken time and energy from me. And now other work takes me longer because my routine is gone. This should not suggest that I am against technology in any way - I could not live without my laptop. Technology, like anything else, is wonderful when it works the way it should.

5/1/07 - Our tech person was able to restore my computer without having to reimage it. So, I lost nothing but a little time. I am so grateful to her!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Back in the Saddle

I've had a week back after maternity leave. Looking back, I realize I did very little actual teaching during the week, but it is probably best to ease back into things.

I did do individual interviews with the majority of my class in math (I'll do the last few tomorrow). I wanted to assess what they understood about probability and graphing, which they studied while I was out. I didn't want to give them a test for two reasons; they have already been tested on this material and I'm not convinced a written test would have given me the information I was looking for.

I designed an in-depth interview based on the SOLs in these two areas. I found graphs to show them and have them explain to me. I wrote up sets of data for them to describe how they would graph. I had a list of possible events for them to explain the likelihood of. Each interview took between ten and fifteen minutes. I had to bite my tongue on occasion to keep for turning interviews into lessons and stay focused on the assessment. However, on the whole, I am thrilled with how they have gone. In that short time I have learned a lot about what my students do and don't understand about probability and graphing. We'll see if I'm still this happy with the interviews after I record them tomorrow and can watch them!

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Going On-Ramp

I have spent the past few days preparing to "go on-ramp" (as Amy told me), returning to work after a few months of maternity leave. One of the things I noticed immediately is how little time we have before we begin our Standards of Learning tests in reading, math, and science. Not surprisingly this got me thinking about preparation for them.

That train of thought followed a meandering path and I came to the conclusion that we, as a society, feel a need to quantify everything. Unfortunately, some things are not quantifiable. Facts we expect students to memorize are quantifiable. Understanding of some concepts is quantifiable, but not all. Some skills are quantifiable, but again, not all. However, the standardized tests that we administer on a grand scale every year only cover things that are quantifiable. In doing so, we do a terrible disservice to our students and teachers.

My issues with standardized tests are at least three-fold:
1. They only test things that are quantifiable. This is an issue in that it places priority on those things. This automatically makes other skills, concepts, etc. less important in our schools. We must focus on those things that are tested to the detriment of everything else.
2. Any standardized test is just a snapshot. It gives one brief picture of a student. If they are having a bad day for any reason; family issues, little sleep, not enough food, friendship problems, etc. they may not perform accurately.
3. The way we adminster standardized tests does not show a student's growth. We test students at the end of each year in ways that are completely removed from previous year's tests. We compare students to benchmarks without giving any consideration to where they began. This means that a student could make stupendous growth and still appear to be a failure under our current system.

For an interesting, amusing analogy on this issue, see A Year of Reading's post titled "No Dentist Left Behind".

Thursday, March 22, 2007

I spent about an hour back in my classroom today because my students were having a goodbye party for the substitute teacher. This woman is absolutely amazing. She taught for many years - a variety of subjects and ages - and was a principal. She is retired but still teaches for our intersessions and does some long term substituting. She substituted for me on my first maternity leave and I was thrilled that she agreed to do so again.

When we spoke today she was very apologetic because she felt they had not gotten through enough of the science unit that I had planned for them. This gave me pause for three reasons. The first was simply that I did not want her to be concerned about it. I know that my students' time was well spent while she was with them. Secondly, it pains me a little to think that we have to "cover" information. This does not suggest real learning to me. The unit she was teaching was on light and sound. They have done all of the lessons on light. My feeling is that if they have a deep understanding of the concepts surounding light then they have done well in science. If they had managed to get through all of the lessons but did not really understand the concepts, then the entire quarter would have been wasted. Last of all, she felt they had not accomplished as much as she had hoped because there were so many interruptions to their instructional time.

All teachers struggle with this. I think it probably becomes a bigger and bigger issue as the students get older. The interruptions they faced in the last two weeks were a school math tournament, an assembly, patrol meetings, and a school-wide writing celebration (and of course the mercury fiasco). All of these are worthy ventures. This was simply another example for me of the balance teachers and schools walk in their attempts to teach children all of the ideas, concepts, and information we have deemed necessary, and build life skills, and expand their horizons. Schools have so many more responsibilities to our children than most people realize. I think we are trying to be everything to everyone, and ultimately that is not possible. Individual schools and society at large must consider the expectations and be prepared to make adjustments as needed.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

HazMat and the Hazards of Teaching

A couple of days ago one of my students brought a small vial of mercury to school. At the end of the day, during science centers, she passed it around to about half of the class. (I am on maternity leave and missed this excitement, chaos, or insanity - depending on your viewpoint.) No one shared this information with the teacher that day. That evening a parent, whose child fortunately told her, called the principal to inform her. She immediately began taking steps to ensure everyone's safety. She called the public health nurse for advice. The nurse notified the environmental health office. The principal called the office of risk management. She then spoke to those students who were involved in the incident. Both a HazMat team and the office of risk management came to inspect the classroom. The students had to be relocated until the classroom was inspected and deamed safe. Those students involved had to be checked by the HazMat team. This means that half the class was pulled out of instructional time twice (once with the principal, once with the HazMat team) and the entire class was relocated for a couple of hours. It is challenging to teach and learn under those circumstances. In addition, those classrooms near ours were distracted by the arrival and work of the HazMat team, not a quiet process I'm sure. The teachers were highly distracted due to unease about what has happening in their wing of the building. A conservative guess would be that this impacted 120 children for at least half a day.

I recount this incident because it is an example, albeit an extreme one, of how events get in the way of teachers teaching and students learning. We are together about six hours a day for 180 days of school each year. If all we had to do with that time was teach, we could accomplish so much. However, we are teaching children, not just curriculum, and this can lead to challenges. They are people with complicated lives, just as adults are. No adult spends all of their time at work accomplishing tasks. There is time spent socializing, time spent lost in thought about wonderful or terrible things happening in lives, time spent redoing work that was orignially completed while distracted by something, and on and on. This is true for children as well, we are simply less willing to admit it and try to address it.

I do not believe that we should lower standards, change our curriculum, or make any other drastic changes. I simply believe that we need to look at our schools as places where people are learning, teaching, and living everyday.

My students have been chastised for not letting an adult know immediately about the mercury. They have had quite a scare. A couple of students' shoes were confiscated because mercury was found on them. I am glad that the adults involved made sure that the students understood the seriousness of this incident. I am also glad that the adults involved did not overreact to the situation. These students realized they were doing something they shouldn't, but they had no idea of the dangers of mercury. Nothing about this whole episode is in our curriculum, but I would suggest that my class learned more from this than they learn from a week of my lessons.