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?