Saturday, January 31, 2009

My Own Personal Issues

I have one coat closet in my classroom. For the first part of the year that was sufficient. Anytime my students needed to get into their backpacks it became a bit of a nightmare, but worked fairly well. Once winter hit and everyone was wearing heavy coats, it all fell apart. Students tossed backpacks and coats into our one coat closet and they spilled out everywhere. The coat closet is just inside our door so they were always in the way. It drove me insane. I had to do something about it before I starting throwing coats and backpacks into the hallway, immediately followed by their owners.

I got two big tubs and put them on the sides of the classroom for backpack storage. Two tables put their backpacks into one tub and the other two tables put their backpacks into the other. Sometimes these tubs are neater than this, but they at least contain the backpacks.

That left us plenty of room for coats. I'm slowly training the kids to hang their coats up on the back row of hooks if they are the first ones in. So far we've only had a few coats land on the floor throughout the day. There's also a basket hidden in their to hold hats, scarves, mittens, and other random cold weather necessities.

I'm not sure what it says about me that this was so critical to my sanity. Regardless, it has greatly improved my attitude throughout the school day. That's worth a lot.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

More on Educon 2.1

Educon is fabulous and I'm sure I will have many more posts about it in the next few days. However, for those who aren't lucky enough to be here, there are ways to feel a part of the fun.

There are a bunch of pictures on flickr and will be more, I'm sure.

You can follow the twitter stream of all tweets involving Educon.

If you feel really into all the excitement, you can go to the wiki to watch the streams of the sessions. (Click on sessions by title and facilitator and you will see the links to the channels.)

Initial Thoughts on EduCon 2.1

I'm lucky enough to be in Philadelphia this weekend for EduCon 2.1 at the Science Leadership Academy. I spent yesterday afternoon wandering around the school, talking to students and teachers, and enjoying myself.

I have no knowledge of high schools, having taught elementary all my career. My last experience with high school was when I was a student. As a result, I'm sure I didn't get as much out of my time yesterday as many high school teachers would have.

That said, I was beyond impressed with SLA and the students here. Two freshmen girls gave me a tour of the school and their excitement and enthusiasm were contagious. They talked about their teachers and classes the way elementary school students do. They clearly adore their teachers, principal, and school. Students in classes stopped to explain to us the work they were doing. They were completely comfortable talking with us as equals. It was highly impressive.

Chris Lehmann has created (I'm sure he would say, with lots of help) an atmosphere of learning that is unparalleled. Students have been as involved in EduCon as many of the teachers. They are clearly very invested in their own education in a way that, I think, most high students are not. It has given me a lot to think about.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Center of a School

I've recently come to the conclusion that the librarian is a significant hub at any school. In our school of about 750 students, the librarian is the only person who sees every single student every week. That alone is daunting, but when one considers all the other responsibilities inherent in running a school library the job seems exceptionally difficult.

My second year at our school we got a new librarian. She had been at other elementary schools and at least one high school. She was fabulous. Her lessons tied into our content and engaged our students. She invited teachers into the library as equals in terms of looking for new books to order or organization or any host of other issues. When I attended meetings around our district and spoke with other librarians they always mentioned her name with respect and awe. We were blessed!

She retired in December. She was planning to retire last June, but remained for an extra six months so that her replacement could be ready. That would be Tree. She needed one more semester to have enough credits to be our librarian. So our previous librarian stayed. Our amazing principal made it possible for them both to be in the library for that period. Talk about blessed.

I think our new librarian will continue to raise the bar. She's already met with my team to talk about her plans for our students. She's not constrained by the need to do things the way they've always been done. Most importantly, her first thought is always, "How will this help our students?" I am amazed at how much I think a school gains from having a strong, brilliant librarian as a leader.


Two of my wonderful students are a year behind their peers. One precious boy repeated kindergarten last year and one darling girl is repeating first grade. The boy has been struggling all year. He started the year below grade level in just about every area and continues to fall farther behind. We have just recently started the (very long) process of assessing for learning disabilities.

It's the girl that I find especially fascinating this year. I observed in her classroom some last year as I was attempting to gain some clue about life in first grade. She stood out in that room in part because she was a loner. She seemed completely isolated and uncomfortable. (It should be noted that she had absolutely fabulous teachers.)

At the start of this year she was a completely different child. She was confident, outgoing, engaged, everything we could have hoped. At the end of the first quarter I met with her father and he was visibly relieved to hear how well she was doing. He felt the right decision had been made in retaining her. We all did.

Now, halfway through the school year, I have my doubts. She seems to be pulling into herself more and more. She is disengaged during lessons, seeming to space out. She still achieves academically at a higher level than the great majority of her classmates, but it doesn't seem to matter to her. She's starting to resemble the student I observed last year.

I don't know what would have happened had she gone on to second grade. Maybe she would have struggled in the same way as last year from day one. Maybe at some point things would have clicked for her however and she would have soared. There's no way for us to know.

In the upper grades I didn't face the issue of retention in the same way as I will in first grade. It was unheard of for us to retain students at that level and I completely agreed. I was shocked last year to learn how many students we were retaining in kindergarten and first grade. However, I assumed I simply didn't have the knowledge to know what we should do.

Watching these two students has me wondering anew. Is anything gained when we retain students? How do we know when/if it will benefit a child and when it will hurt them?

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Over the years my school has worked with a variety of business partners. They've supported us financially, they've mentored students, and they've volunteered their time to help on special occasions. This year, however, we had the most visible gift from any business partner yet. Capital One put together gift bags for every child at our school, about 750. The bags differed by grade level, but every single one had gloves and a book. The little guys (kindergarten and first) got coloring books, crayons, bouncy balls, candy, and more. I'm not sure what all was in the bags for the upper grades. It was exceptionally generous.

I was looking through our school newsletter the other day and noticed a brief note about these bags. It said that the employees at Capital One had decided to use the money for their holiday party in this way. Exceptionally generous.


As I dropped my class of in the gym today I was told that one of my students (Rubber Band) was leaving early. As she and I walked back to the classroom to get her backpack she asked, "Why am I going home?" I said I didn't know why. She said, "Am I sick?"

I said, "I don't know. Are you sick?"
"I guess so."
"Really? And your dad figured it out before you or I did?"

Amazing talent he has.

Friday, January 09, 2009

First Grade Private Eyes (with the emphasis on eyes)

I taught a week-long, intersession course on Cynthia Rylant's books. Somewhere in my planning I decided to call it The Case of the Intersession Excitement. As a result, we focused a bit on her High-Rise Private Eyes series. I decided I wanted the students to be detectives some during the week. Of course, I decided this at the last minute and had no time to plan really complex, age-appropriate mysteries for them to solve. So, I headed to Amazon. I found You're the Detective. According to Amazon the reading level is for ages 4-8. I think that's fairly absurd, but I did manage to pick out four different mysteries I thought they could solve. (The book seems perfect for the upper grades.)

Each of the mysteries has a black and white drawing of the 'crime scene' on one page and a short story with prodding questions on another page. Each day I would read them the story, then give them each a copy of the picture and read the story again. I used some of the questions and added questions with hints of my own to get them rolling. Then I would walk away and have them talk in small groups to try and solve the mystery.

First of all, they were really into it. I truly enjoyed eavesdropping on the conversations. However, the thing that struck me the most was their impressive observation skills. As they looked at those pictures they saw things I had completely missed. I think part of this is due to their inability or only fledgling ability to read. They aren't as focused on text when they are looking at a book and they really take in the illustrations. As a result, their skills are much better for noticing details in pictures than mine. They may not have the background knowledge to make meaning of everything they notice, but they don't miss anything.

I've noticed this in my own two girls (a kindergartner and a two-year old). It strikes me when they notice certain balloons (Pooh or Dora) in a crowded grocery store or when they see a family member in the background of a photograph. Their eyes are sharper than mine in this way.

My oldest is just beginning to read. I am watching closely to see if her observation skills begin to decline as her reading skills increase.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Who's Being Bugged?

I'm currently teaching first and second graders during our week long intersession (due to our modified calendar we have these short, optional periods three times each year). Not surprisingly it's the first time I've taught this age during intersession and it's eye opening. I give them more slack during this time because it's not as academic. We're studying Cynthia Rylant's books and having a blast.

One little guy in my afternoon class has been driving me a bit crazy. He's unable to sit still or to focus on anything, including the fabulous books I'm reading to them! He's done a pretty good job of not disturbing others so I've let it go so far.

A few minutes ago he came over and told me about all the bugs in their apartment. He said they keep biting them and they have blood all over, "from us," he said. He said that he has trouble sleeping because they bother him and he's itching so much.

No wonder Cynthia Rylant isn't as engaging as I had hoped.