Thursday, December 30, 2010

Common Assessments: Too Common and Not Truly Assessing

I've questioned the ideas behind PLCs for some time. Currently I've been mulling over the idea of common assessments. This year our school has a focus on common assessments and my team has been using them in math once a quarter. It's got me thinking about the purpose of these assessments.

Unless I am mistaken, common assessments are often used for assessing students. As surprising as it may sound, I don't think that's an appropriate use for them.

A lot can be learned from a common assessment, but it should not be used to judge the students. Assuming that every student in a grade level is ready for an assessment at the same time, or that they should all be assessed in exactly the same way, makes no sense. At least not if we really want to assess their understanding.

When we look at our common assessments we learn about misconceptions or language gaps our students have that we can address to help them understand the concept. We identify flaws in the assessment in order to improve it for the future. Sometimes we find that one teacher was really successful with a concept and should share his/her strategies.

But we don't learn much about what our students understand. There are infinitely better ways to do that than a common assessment.

It's possible I am completely misunderstanding the intention of common assessments or how they are frequently used.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

New Year's Resolutions

I have been a super cranky, Grinch of a teacher lately. I have a lot of excuses, but it always comes back to me. In the moments of crankiness I can feel how awful it is but I can't seem to handle things in a better way.

So, I'm hoping the break will help me get rejuvenated and start fresh in January. My resolution is to stop reacting to my students and start reflecting more. I hope that if I can step back to reflect I will be in better shape to respond well.

This week my first graders created resolutions (we called them goals for the new year). They wrote their goal in Pixie and then illustrated it. I was amazed at how thoughtful and hard-working they were during our 45 minutes in the computer lab.

This is why my resolution is important to me. Kids who can create these goals deserve a patient, thoughtful, respectful teacher.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Edublog Award Thoughts

I didn't pay too much attention to the Edublog Awards this year. Actually, I don't ever. It comes when I'm much too busy to give it much attention. I do enjoy seeing the results, however. Just as I enjoy the results of the Oscars or the Tonys or the Pulitzers. I don't follow any closely, but I like to see who won.

Some blogs I enjoy and respect won Edublog Awards. But the results got me thinking about what the edublogosphere (defined by those who nominated and voted) is looking for in blogs. Richard Byrne's Free Technology for Teachers won three awards, Best Individual Blog, Best Resource Sharing Blog, and Best Ed Tech Support Blog. Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day was a runner-up in Best Individual Blog.

First off, I have immense respect for both of those men. I can't imagine how they manage to be aware of all those resources, knowledgeable about them, and able to share them so thoughtfully. I greatly appreciate them doing so.

That said, I found seeing both their names in the Best Individual Blog category surprising. The category Best Resource Sharing Blog seemed made for them. Their wins in the Best Individual Blog category suggests to me that many, many people are looking for resource sharing blogs and that those blogs are of critical importance to them. I found it a little disappointing that the Best Individual Blog was not a blog that makes me think. The blogs that sit in my reader until I have the time to sit with them, think about them, post comments - those are the types of blogs I expected to see win.

Am I alone in this? Am I off base? Am I not giving enough credit to these resource sharing blogs? Am I missing something (certainly possible!)?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Assessment vs. Kids

As the federal government requires that we give standardized reading and math tests to students from grade three on, our fabulous district has decided we should do the same for kindergarten through second grade. For reading, this is actually no change. We give the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) to every child in elementary school twice a year, at least. For math, our district created a standardized assessment for the youngest kids. So we know give a multiple choice and short answer Mathematical Reasoning Assessment (MRA) twice a year.

Recently our first grade team met together with our math coach to look at our results. We had a pretty good discussion about the data, identifying areas in which we need to think about our instruction and analyzing questions we thought they should know but didn't. Sometimes it's simply a matter of language (when it asks which fraction is shaded, it helps if our kids know the word shaded).

Several folks brought up the idea that our students, as first graders, don't do a lot of paper and pencil tasks and so had trouble with this. The reaction, immediately, was that we need to do more paper and pencil tasks.

I wanted to cry. Why isn't the reaction that we should work for an assessment that better fits our kids' needs. Why should they change to meet the assessment?

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Posts by Kids

As I try to hand responsibility over to the first graders for their learning and choices, I decided they could take over our class blog. I'm not convinced this will be less work for me, in fact I think it will likely be more work. But worth it, I hope.

Today, during our free choice time, two girls chose to join me and compose their first blog post. They picked the topic, pictures, and composed the post. I did the actual typing, but nothing else. For the moment, I'm going to allow them to chose to work with me rather than require it of anyone. I'm also sticking with two kids at a time. We'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Last year I tried something new at the beginning of the year. As many of our first graders are only beginning to read and write in September I wanted to support their independent reading as much as possible. So, I collected multiple copies of books and read aloud as many as I could in the first couple of weeks. Books in series are great for this too. I read the various Betsy Lewin and Doreen Cronin books about Duck, some Elephant and Piggie and some Pigeon books by Mo Willems, and some Froggy books. (There were many others but these are favorites for this year's class.) Then, because I have multiple copies these are the books they are 'reading' at the start of the year.

I have found this to be a fabulous way to start the year and, as long as I am choosing books I think are good, I love that the kids come back to these books again and again. By this point in the year they all have lots of books from guided reading as well as access to our full classroom library. But these books are still very popular.

I noticed this little guy reading a Froggy book during independent reading last week. Later, when we had a few minutes, I asked him to read it to me in the hallway. He is still very much a beginning reader and this book is too difficult for him to read independently. But he loves it and the other books in the series. He remembers them and knows the repeating patterns (the mom or dad calling Frrrrrrooooooooogggggggyyyyyyy! and Froggy answering Wwwwwhhhhhhhaaaaaattttttt?). Listening to him 'read' this book made my morning.

I hope this is a sign that he sees himself as a reader as much as I do.

Monday, December 06, 2010

When You Assume...

It is so easy to make assumptions about what students know and understand. We do it all the time. Often, it goes completely unnoticed by us, but every once in a while something happens to make these assumptions shine.

I teach in a significantly low-income school. Many of our families receive financial and/or other support from various groups, especially at the holiday season.

Here's a story one child wrote about his family getting presents from the Salvation Army.

My mom is going to the Salvation Army in Dec 21. In 21 my mom is going to the Salvation Army and it has airplanes and helicopters. And no kids allowed so my only my should go and my dad is taking care of us. (The next page with the pictures show the kids at home with dad on one side and mom at the Salvation Army on the other side.) Then mom came home with the presents and we open the presents.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

We Did It!

We made a big structural change in our reading/writing time today. We moved to what we are calling LAB (language arts block) rather than separate reading and writing workshops. We will do a focus lesson at the beginning and then have almost an hour and a half for the kids to meet with us for guided reading, write independently, and do their work station (reading center). Our hope is that they will have responsibility for their learning, thrive on the choice, and we'll all have more learning time due to fewer transitions.

Yesterday we took time to think about something we are each good at and how we got good at it and how we can get better. We listed the ideas they thought of. I was really impressed with their thoughts. We tied this to how we will become better readers and writers - a theme we plan to continue to hit all year. But I was still a bit terrified about how today would go.

It went swimmingly! The kids were so excited about it. It seems we had the structures in place to make things work and they did. I know it has only been one day and I am knocking on wood, crossing my fingers, and anything else I can think of. But I am so excited by the possibilities! I am thrilled by the responsibility these kids took on today.

I did put up a few of our favorite characters with speech bubbles as well. I'm hoping (possibly foolishly) that these little reminders will help out when kids lose stamina at times.

Monday, November 29, 2010


As my students were doing their independent reading this morning, I was rereading Debbie Miller's Reading with Meaning. This is a fabulous book about teaching reading and I've been needing to reread it for some time. I put it beside my chair in the classroom and I read along with the kids for 15 minutes every day.

Today, I read the following quote,
"How did you get your kids to talk and share their thinking like that? My kids could never do that?" How did I get them to do that? It's really pretty simple. I taught them.
I realized this is my goal as a teacher. I want to teach my students how to think, how to talk, how to listen, how to explore, how to research, how to learn. I don't care about the content. That will take care of itself as they grow.

Maybe this is the big shift in education right now. We're still trying to teach kids content (common core, state, district standards, whatever it may be) when we should be focused on skills they need as learners. If we can teach them those skills - and model them for them everyday - then we will be successful as teachers.

I don't think this is a big aha, something that hasn't been said or debated before. It was simply a big aha for me.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


For those who read this in a reader of any sort, I apologize for the past few posts. We have a blog about our daughters in order to share their lives with those family members who live far from us (or not so far) and I mistakenly posted here what should have gone there. I have removed the posts, but not before RSS feeds caught them. Honestly, I'm amazed I haven't made this mistake before.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Tell Me a Story

For a number of years now my school has been holding Partners in Print evenings for families. These evenings are designed to help parents learn and practice ways to help their child grow as a reader and writer. Since moving to first grade from the upper grades I've helped present several of these evenings.

Last week we presented the first one for this year. For the first time we completely ditched the script (we've seriously modified scripts in the past). We decided to focus on storytelling because that is an important focus in our classrooms at the beginning of the year.

After giving some basic reasoning for our plan to help parents understand why we were doing what we did, one presenter told a personal family story. Then parents told their children their family stories; stories from their childhood, from the child's younger years, or even from other family members. It was amazingly fun to watch families talking and laughing together.

After telling stories we modeled writing the story in a book. Then we provided paper, pencils, crayons, and colored pencils. We weren't concerned about who did the writing and/or illustrating in the family, just that they were doing so together.

Our hope is that families will continue telling stories after this evening, every chance they get. Oral storytelling is an easy thing for families to do together and helps build an understanding of story structure. Children who haven't been read to regularly often don't have a foundation for stories. Telling family stories is a way all families can support this goal, regardless of whether there are books in the home and whether parents are literate in English or other languages. We all have stories to tell. I'm so glad I had this opportunity to hear some from our families.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Sometimes They Lead Me

We've got a strategies lab at our school. It's full of a wide variety of strategies games, some individual and some for partners or small groups. I've been taking my first graders once a week since the beginning of the year. We've learned to play several different games so far. For the first month or more we just played every week. The kids loved it and so did I.

A few weeks ago I pushed the kids to think about what they were doing to be successful at the game they were playing. I expected to hear a lot of very specific, but not useful, things. Things like how they move a specific piece or how they look at the pictures to help them. Instead they wowed me with the beginning of this list.

We continued talking and adding to our list the following week. I added the words after the dashes (ignore and persevere) but all the other language is theirs. The goal now is to help them identify and use these strategies in other areas as well. We call these universal strategies, strategies that are useful everywhere. (I can't take credit for that name. I know our Advanced Academic Programs teacher and our librarian used it but I don't know if they coined it.)

On the days when I am feeling frustrated and as though I am beating my head against a wall, this list is a wonderful reminder of the brilliance and potential of my students.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Why First Grade is Awesome

During our calendar time today we spent a while creating number stories to go with a number sentence. We were working with 1 + 6 = 7, a basic problem for first graders. They were making up stories to go with that number sentence. Most stories were also pretty basic. One dog was eating, six more dogs came along, now seven dogs are eating. That sort of thing.

One child (a girl, not surprisingly) told this story: One unicorn was playing on a rainbow. Six more unicorns came to the rainbow. Now seven unicorns are playing on the rainbow.

That's one of the many reasons I love first grade.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Kids ARE Kids

I did it again. I read Jay Mathews' column (blog, whatever) and got annoyed. To compound my foolishness I commented on the post which means that I feel compelled to follow the other comments. I truly should know better.

This one was Top District Lets Average Kids Lag Behind. Iit reads like an indictment of high school students. Well, not those who are making As, but others.

Mathews wrote this after hearing from a high school teacher who is concerned about the grading policy in his district.
“All I can do is beg my students to study. Ultimately, they know they don’t have to and don’t,” said Stephens, who has taught for 20 years. “I would guess fewer than a handful actually studied for their test last week. No joke.”

I have so many issues with this. But I'm going to stick with just one in this rant. Plenty of research has shown that the teenage brain is not fully developed. Teenagers are not able to make decisions as adults. From the above cited article in Harvard Magazine:

The last section to connect is the frontal lobe, responsible for cognitive processes such as reasoning, planning, and judgment.
But we expect students to plan for tests that have little or no relevance in their lives. Just because we say so. I'm old enough that according to the research my brain has fully developed, but I don't like to do things because someone else says so. I'd be hard pressed to judge teenagers because they don't like to jump through hoops. Let's try to look at our students in light of their years and brain development. Let's not keep acting as though they are mini-adults.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Bathroom Walls

A year and a half ago I was debating what to do on the walls of the small bathroom in our classroom. I hated having that wasted space and I felt like the kids could have something there they would enjoy and/or learn from. The comments in response to my request for ideas were wonderful. I ended up just hanging some artwork last year, which I liked. I added more artwork this year (we needed more than just Picasso, Escher, and Khalo). Then, I decided to add the words the kids are expected to learn in kindergarten. Of course they haven't all learned them yet so I figured they might as well see them often.

Now, in those emergency situations when I actually use this bathroom it feels less gross and icky to me. Not un-gross or un-icky, just less so. I did manage to take pictures that avoid anything that shows this is a bathroom. I promise it is.

Monday, November 08, 2010

In the Wild

Last night I joined a friend for drinks. She was in the area for the SEDTA conference. Although I had met another friend for brunch last year when she was here for the same conference, I really had no idea what this conference is. For those equally uninitiated, it is the State Educational Technology Directors Association. If you are interested, you can learn a lot more about the group on the website because that's the extent of my knowledge at the moment.

Anyway, we met for drinks and it was delightful to see her. The evening began with just the two of us chatting in the lobby bar but gradually more and more folks joined us. These folks seemed to know each other, if not in person, at least from conference calls and such. I, of course, knew no one other than my friend.

At one point it became clear that some folks were trying to figure out my place in this. They didn't recognize me and they could tell from conversations that my friend and I have a connection. I explained that I'm a local who just joined them for the evening to see her. When asked what I do, I said that I teach first grade.

Their reactions were fascinating. I felt like an orangutan in the wild discovered by scientists who have studied orangutans for years but never seen one. Telling my occupation has never resulted in such amazement.

My immediate thought was that these folks should make more of an effort to talk to teachers. Of course, I couldn't have felt better than to hear my friend say, "Yes, we should have more teachers at these things."

She, like many others there, has never been a K-12 teacher. But she knows teachers because she makes an effort to be connected with them in a wide variety of ways. We need more policy makers who do that.

Sunday, November 07, 2010


Halloween is very likely my favorite holiday. You get to dress up and eat candy, I'm not sure how to beat that.

But, Halloween certainly has the power to make me wonder about our society. This girl is wonderful, I adore her. I have no idea why a costume like this is made in a size to fit a six year old. I can only assume there is demand for it and that is painful to me.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

THAT Student

Every teacher has THAT kid (or maybe a few) that she will never forget. For me, it's a boy I taught in both fourth and fifth grades many years ago. He was brilliant. When I read books aloud he shared ideas that were far beyond anyone else's thinking, including mine. He could just see some things, they just made sense to him.

Unfortunately, he never believed me about how brilliant he was. He struggled to read and in fourth and fifth grade if you can't read you must be stupid. I don't really understand dyslexia, but letters didn't seem to stay still on a page for him. No matter what I tried I couldn't help him read easily and I couldn't convince him of his intelligence.

He and I kept in touch through at least his eighth grade year. We attended theatrical performances at his middle school (it was so fun to watch other former students perform) and he even came to my house one day and helped me stain my new pantry doors. I wasn't ready to let go. I always felt like I should be doing more for him. His potential was so great.

After eighth grade we lost touch. By then I had two kids and many new students. When I would drive by his apartment building I would wonder what happened to him. I thought about him frequently, more than any other former student.

Today, he walked into my classroom. He is a senior in high school and is volunteering at our school for some of his community service hours for class. When I turned around and saw him walk in with our assistant principal I teared up. I'm not sure what message my current first graders got from the huge hug I gave him and the fact that it took me a couple of minutes to pull myself together before I could finish giving the directions for their math activity. I don't really care.

We didn't have a chance to talk much today. Eighteen first graders working with dice and counters kept us busy. But he'll be back. There will be time for that.

I requested one of these volunteers when the email went out about them. I always do. If there is an extra set of hands available they are always welcome in my room. I even knew that some of these students were alums of our school and I asked if I could have one of them. I thought I'd been around long enough there is a chance I would know them. It turns out that he was the one volunteer who asked about a specific teacher. He wanted to know if I was still here.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Another Washington Post Link

When I have a long teux-deux list I should know better than to take a break with my google reader. Clearly, I don't know better.

Valerie Strauss' Answer Sheet does not usually cause the same response in me as Jay Mathews' Class Struggle. However, Daniel Willingham occassionally writes posts and I often disagree with him. This time however, he says something my mother has told me for years.

My mother is a Registered Nurse. When folks have suggested that sugar will make kids hyper or crazy, she has always spoken up to say that studies have shown that not to be true. I have believed her but not with enough confidence to speak up often.

Daniel Willingham is a psychology professor at UVA. He links to several different studies of sugar on kids' behavior. His final thought sums it up well:
There’s pretty good evidence that there is not a physiological effect of sugary snacks on kids’ behavior, and some of parent’s perception of an effect is probably just that--perception. But there could also be a psychological effect whereby sugary snacks are associated with other factors such as a less regulated atmosphere or kids’ perception of a less well regulated atmosphere.
I appreciate having links to studies to back me up when I quote my mom now.

Raising My Blood Pressure

Jay Mathews has managed to tick me off again and this time he didn't even write anything. Impressive.

The most recent post on his Class Struggle blog is by J. Martin Rochester, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He rants about the idea that some schools are eliminating spelling tests. Although he quotes one language arts coordinator as saying that "we were developing a lot of Friday morning spellers" suggesting to me that kids could spell words on the tests but not in their actual writing. Who cares if they can spell on tests? Can you get more inauthentic? Time is valuable in any school, we can't afford to waste time on activities that are not impacting students' learning.

I think my favorite quote comes near the end:
In our pursuit of mass excellence, we continue to throw the baby out with the bathwater, abandoning traditional if imperfect practices in favor of new unproven ones.
If we never try unproven practices we never move forward. How can someone be willing to admit that practices are imperfect and not be open to the idea of trying something new to improve?

If I promise not to tell J. Martin Rochester how to analyze international law, do you think he'll stop telling me how to teach young children?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Reason #391 Why I Love My School

These pictures were taken in our library before school one morning. Our librarian (Library Goddess, as I like to call her) opens our library for the 30 minutes before school begins each day. Even when meetings happen in the library she lets the kids in. She holds high expectations for them and sends anyone away who can't be polite and respectful. On a daily basis she helps kids learn routines, social skills, and other basic skills in addition to finding fabulous books.

Students can use the netbooks, do puzzles, play games, play with puppets, and check out books. Most mornings the room is packed. Some kids are there every day.

There is no expectation that our librarian (and the also awesome library aide) spend their time this way. It is a choice they made. I find it hard to imagine being willing to give up that time before school - I need it to get ready for the day. But these ladies recognized a need and stepped up. Something we see happening in schools everyday. We should celebrate it more often.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Pick me, Pick me!

In an attempt to cut down on the wildly waving hands as students are desperate to share an answer, a thought, or a question, we often put our fingers on our noses instead. Sometimes I shake it up and have them put a finger on an ear, on their head, on their chin, etc. As a bonus, that also builds vocabulary.

Most of the kids put their index finger on the end of their nose. Effective, simple. But, as you can see with the girl below, sometimes the kids put their entire hand on their nose. I'm not sure why. Some kids pinch their nose and others smush it hard in their hopes of being chosen.

My favorite, however, is the little guy at the bottom. He doesn't always do this, but he frequently does. He's very serious and I'm certain he has no idea of the message he could be sending.

(I'm taking pictures all the time so the kids are accustomed to me pointing a camera at them. As a result, I don't think my snapping these seemed at all odd to them. Thankfully.)

Monday, October 25, 2010

A Rare Book Review

I don't tend to do a lot of book reviews here because I don't keep up with books as well as I should and there are so many blogs that do a much better job than I ever could.

However, my youngest daughter checked a book out of the library this summer that was so fabulous I had to purchase it myself. White is for Blueberry by George Shannon is perfect for so many things. The idea in the book is to look at items from another perspective. So, white is for blueberries that are not ready to be picked. When I read it to my class today they were quite hesitant at first. "White is for blueberry?" They began to buy into it after a few examples and then got to "Purple is for snow..." Then they were skeptical again. But it didn't last. They loved the book.

We'll be reading it again and again. After we finished it today we had a brief discussion of other ideas to include - such as pink is for rabbit (the inside of the ears). It could be fun to write a class book modeled after this.

It also fits well with our wondering about everything. We've started our Wonder Notebooks and began collecting questions we wonder about. Looking at things from such a different perspective, as this book does, will push us to wonder in some new ways.

I shared the book today with several other teachers and everyone adored it.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bad Teacher (But Still Trying)

In the midst of teaching everyday it is nigh on impossible for me to step back. When I am able to get a little perspective it doesn't really matter. I seem unable to control my reactions to the kids. I find myself responding to them in ways that are punitive. I'm taking away free choice time (not recess, at least). I'm easily frustrated.

I know how I want to respond. I know what would be helpful. But so far it seems to be beyond me to actually do it.

Reading Joe Bower's most recent post about a school-wide behavior system caught me. I've only recently discovered his blog and it's become a must read for me.

Reading his interaction with a student was a reminder of how I want to interact with kids. My two current goals (there are so many more in my head but I'm trying to keep this doable):
  • Take the time to listen more. I have not had the patience to do this lately and it is critical. Just doing this will make a huge difference, I think.
  • Give students the benefit of the doubt. Assume the positive rather than the negative. Children are not too often truly malicious. They are not often attempting to drive me crazy. I need to remember that.
Oddly enough, it would be astoundingly helpful if I could keep these things in mind at home with my daughters as well.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

More About First Grade Writing

Clearly I'm thinking a lot about writing at the moment. This video was taken the first week we were doing independent writing. I was so impressed with how focused everyone was on their writing I grabbed my flip video camera to record it. Not every day is this focused, but mostly they enjoy writing. It often surprises me to see how students who are just beginning to be able to physically write things see themselves as writers. It shows what an awesome job our kindergarten teachers are doing.

Monday, October 18, 2010

First Grade Writing

One of the first things I had to learn when I started teaching first grade two years ago was how to read their writing. I've gotten reasonably good at it, but I still have a way to go. Friends who have taught in the primary grades for years are much better at deciphering early writing than I am.

These are examples from eight of my students (ones whose names were easy to remove or were missing altogether) from the first two days of our independent writing. We started that during the second week of school. Personally, I was thrilled with the work these students were doing that early in first grade.

How much of this can you read?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Feeling Good about Tables

In our second year of having a wide range of table options, it seems to be working splendidly. As the students were writing the other day I noticed the decisions they had made about where to work.

Every small, intimate table (seating four or fewer) was occupied by students. Of the large tables, only the one on the floor had more than two students sitting there.

Setting up my classroom this way was a big switch after ten years with more traditional furniture. It's nice to see the students respond well to it.

I'd love to get rid of the big tables (at least the one with chairs) all together, but it is handy for guided reading groups.