Monday, January 31, 2011

How Educon Changed My Thinking

Back at school for a teacher workday this morning several folks have asked how Educon was. After a brief chat with one, she asked me, "How has your thinking changed?" I had to admit I couldn't answer yet. I needed to carve out some reflection time. So, here goes.

The first session I attended was on policy. Whether or not the four who presented that session are typical of those involved in making policy I can't say. I appreciate their presence at this conference and I'm grateful to them for sharing their perspective and inside information with us. I left that session with a sense of empowerment, an idea that I could get involved. They've got a great google doc with information and ideas. We'll see what happens, but I'm hopeful this session was the kick I needed to stretch myself in a new direction. I'd like to invite people in to see our classroom and my students, to help give them a sense of the realities and possibilities. Through those invitations (accepted or not) I hope to build some relationships and work to make my voice heard. Stating this publicly will be one way to keep me accountable in this goal.

The last session I was able to attend asked the question, Is the Internet Making Us Stupid? I enjoyed the structure of this session - they had collected interesting, provocative quotes from the book The Shallows and we moved to points in the room to indicate our agreement or disagreement with each statement. This led to some really fabulous discussion. I don't think there was anything from this session that has changed my thinking right at this moment. What it did was raise a lot of questions for me about how what we do affects how our brains work. It brought new ideas into the forefront of my thinking and I will continue to be pondering them. That may be all that happens or it may lead to something more. I have no idea.

I have just skimmed the surface of Educon and my experience there in this post. Writing it, however, helped me synthesize my thinking and reflect. I need to keep doing that.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Educon 2.3

I'm giving an Encienda* presentation at lunch today at Educon. My message (that I hope comes through) is that we need the focus in education today to be on students, not on content.

I realized this morning that it hits on one of the reasons I love coming to Educon. I've spent the last two days with people who are focused on students, who are passionate about learning, who see the important pieces of education. That's easy to lose sight of in educational discussions in our country.

There is some frustration with Educon in that folks are frustrated by the lack of change. There seems to be a sense that after Educon everyone should go home and change the world. While I get the frustration, the more I think about it the more absurd it seems.

First of all, while I learn at Educon, it's not mind-blowing. I'm learning from most of these people on a regular basis already. There are things I will do as a result of this conference, but nothing will be earth-shattering.

Secondly, change takes time. Nothing is going to make our educational system change overnight. Not even Educon.

Finally, what on earth are people expecting from a few hundred human beings spending three days together? A whole new world?

The fact that Educon doesn't cause massive uproar in our educational system doesn't diminish its value.

*This is a 5 minute presentation with 20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds.

Image from WOScholar's flickr stream in the Educon 2.3 group.

Monday, January 24, 2011

It Gives Me Hope

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about one of my students who lost an infant sibling. My heart is still breaking over all the sadness for the family. Dad lost his job, the car was repossessed and they're grieving. It feels like all I can do is keep teaching this little darling and try to spend as much time together as possible. It's not much.

However, as a school, we are trying to do more. Several of us attended the funeral service. Our counselors are supporting the children of course, but they are also meeting with the parents to try and help them get the support they need for their emotional challenges. Grocery store gift cards and things for the kids (toys, books) are being delivered. Without anyone asking, people are donating money to help them pay their rent.

I am reminded, yet again, at the absolute fabulousness of the people at my school.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Help Me Out

My husband and I are presenting at Educon next weekend (something that has me a bit panicked). We've never presented together before. I am actually quite excited, just equally nervous. Here's our conversation description:

Collaboration is all the rage in education teachers work together, students collaborate, and partnerships extend into communities. Collaborative assessment (including, but not limited to grades) does not receive the same attention. Who should be involved in assessing students? How can we facilitate collaboration between teachers and/or between students and teachers?
We're thinking of a few big questions beginning with 'What is assessment?' We figure it's a good idea to be on the same page about the meaning of the word, the goals of it and the basic idea behind it. Then we can move on to who should be involved and what would be gained by involving them. Hopefully we will also be able to address the various barriers (practical and theoretical) involved here. The final piece is to brainstorm how we facilitate this collaboration in light of the barriers.

Whether you are planning to attend Educon or not, I would love your thoughts on this. I'm curious to know if you think the session as I have laid it out makes sense. I'm also curious to hear folks' thoughts on these questions.

(I know throwing this out there on a Saturday night is far from ideal timing. That said, I'm still going to ask you to share your thoughts. Thanks!)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Good Friend, Plank

Apparently the cartoon Ed, Edd, and Eddy has a character who carries around a piece of wood with a face drawn on it, named Plank. That completely exhausts my knowledge of this.

I learned that much because a student of mine arrived one day carrying a piece of paper folded with a face drawn on it. He called it Plank. During morning meeting he would have the children say good morning to it during greeting and he carried it everywhere. You can see it in his hand as he is up at the smartboard.

Most of the time Plank actually helped out. This student seemed more focused with Plank. When Plank did seem to become a distraction it took a quick warning to Plank and things got back on track.

I can't wait to see if Plank is back after the three-day weekend.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Another Reason Our Librarian is a Goddess

One of the lessons our librarian teaches every year focuses on where students can read their library books. She does this because she has found that kids check out books one day and return them the next. So she has a few lessons on what to do with your library books, including this one.

With the kids she draws a house and an apartment and adds parts to them. Then she draws pictures of books in all the places they might be kept and people reading anywhere they might read.

The lesson is a worthy one but my favorite part is that every year at least one child mentions reading in the bathroom and our librarian happily draws someone reading on the toilet.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Links I've Been Mulling

I try not to write posts that go on for days; mostly because I tend not to read those sorts of posts. I may not be able to help myself here though. Several things I've read in the last week or so keep percolating in my mind.

First off, Ben Johnson wrote on Edutopia about the need to learn. He seems to be arguing that teachers need to worry less about their students' lives outside of school and just focus on teaching.
Am I sacrilegious by saying we should not spend so much time worrying about what happens in a student's home and should spend more time creating effective learning environments at school?
I have a hard time divorcing the two. If I ignore the fact that one of my students is living in a homeless shelter and that another just lost a baby brother in order to focus solely on their learning environment, is that truly helpful? I can't completely separate my life outside of school from my life in school so it seems absurd to think that young children can.

To follow up on that topic Valerie Strauss had a post (on the Washington Post) about the shortage of school counselors. Apparently schools are recommended to have one counselor for every 250 students. Our district seems to fund one counselor for every 500 students. Just allotting counselors per student does not make a lot of sense. Schools with many students living in poverty are likely to have a greater number of issues requiring counselors. Need should be factored into this question. Of course, none of that is relevant if there aren't enough counselors to begin with.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals had a recent post considering the impact of poverty on PISA scores. They have taken the time to break out our PISA scores based on percentage of students in the free or reduced lunch program. One of the most astounding things to me is that no one seems to have the poverty rate we have. That alone suggests a problem far greater than anything in education. The charts the NASSP have created comparing PISA scores are worth checking out.

Finally, Jay Mathews (also at the Washington Post) encouraged schools offering free or reduced price breakfasts to require students to read as they eat. This is not surprising as Mathews often argues for more learning time in a variety of ways. While I am not against making powerful use of the time we have students in school, I also believe that learning is social. Children need time to talk to one another. I also know that in many high poverty schools children do not have a lot of social time outside of school. They go home to apartments and remain there because their parents do not feel it is safe to let them run around outside (and quite possibly they are correct). I fear we are losing sight of children as people and seeing them only as small vessels who must learn things we have deemed important.

(While Mathews did not offend me with this post, many of the comments do. But that's a whole other post.)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Everyone Deserves a Childhood

I'm sitting here in my classroom half an hour after the kids have gone home, crying. It's been that sort of a day.

I learned this morning that a younger sibling (7 months old) of one of my students died last night. I know the baby had been in the hospital (maybe in and out, I'm not certain) but I don't know details. This family has a second-grader, my little first-grader, a pre-schooler in a high-needs program at another school and this baby. I don't know if mom works, but we learned today that dad lost his job last week. He's had bronchitis and hasn't been able to work so he lost his job. Money was tight before, I can't imagine what it will be like now.

The fabulous people at my school have kicked into high gear contacting various groups and government folks to find any kind of help (funeral costs, food). Our principal is planning to send an Edible Arrangement from the school. Many people have already offered to donate towards grocery store gift cards or anything else that might be needed.

I managed to continue teaching all day, through a fog. I hope my student will be back tomorrow. Our counselors are already on deck to meet with both these kiddos. I'm not sure how to support a child through something like this (both the loss of a sibling and the difficulty involved in watching your parents handle such trauma). I'm grateful to be at a school with so many people who have stepped up to help in big and small ways. I know they'll help me help my student.

But I'm also a bit bitter about what the families at our school face. I've got one student living in a homeless shelter (one that I know of, anyway). The majority are on free or reduced lunch. And have you ever looked at that? You have to make almost nothing to qualify for that. I know of at least one family that doesn't qualify but can barely make their bills. Many of our families don't have health insurance, which means that little problems become much bigger problems. The areas in which many of our kids live are not as safe as we would like. They may live two or three families in a small apartment.

Amazingly enough, these kids are happy and eager to learn. Working with them is a delight. Their families are incredibly grateful for all we do for their children. They try to support us in every way we ask. They do this in spite of crowded living conditions, not enough money, working multiple jobs, and, often, limited English. I'm amazed by them.

They deserve better. We as a society deserve better. No one should struggle to survive like this. No child should face such adversity. They should get to be children.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

The Value in Labeling

Tonight at bath time my husband was attempting to wash our three-year-old's hair. As he was trying to get her to lay down and get her hair wet she said (in an exasperated voice), "I'm being patient." I know he and I were both thinking, "This is what you look like being patient?"

This interaction got me thinking about something that has been on my mind a lot lately. Having read a lot of Alfie Kohn's work and Peter Johnston's Choice Words, I struggle with using praise with my students (and my daughters). I've come to a conclusion recently that what I am attempting to do instead is to label things: behaviors, strategies, skills, etc. Sometimes that means telling a student that what they are doing is rude. I'm not assuming they realize that already. Sometimes it means pointing out how efficient a math or reading strategy was for a student. Sometimes it means showing a student how they used dialogue in their story. Hopefully I am not making a judgment call but simply putting a name to what they are doing. (Although I realize that rude is a judgment call.)

Young children, and my students in particular, do not have words for all they see, try, or know. I hope by labeling things in conversations with them they will be better equipped to use that strategy again or choose an appropriate behavior.

As for my three-year-old, I'm not sure if we need to do a better job of labeling patience when she is actually demonstrating it or if she just labeled it so we will recognize it in the future.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Play vs. Learning (Maybe)

This morning during our independent reading time I was rereading Reading with Meaning by Debbie Miller (an absolutely fabulous book). At the end of a chapter I came across this quote:

"Once children begin to integrate their learning into their play, the materials are no longer an end unto themselves; they've become another means for creating understanding and constructing meaning. They've become a means for living the learning."
I sat there, staring off into space for several minutes. (I would chastise my students if they were staring off into space for several minutes during independent reading. I will have to be more careful about that.)

My initial reaction to this quote was a firm support for it. However, as I mulled it over I began to question my response. Is it a bad thing for the materials to no longer be an end unto themselves? Does everything have to come back to the learning?

I can't decide if I'm looking for a happy medium between what Debbie Miller is describing and a completely free play time or if I think one or the other is better. I'd love to hear thoughts.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

All Kinds of Luck

A little darling in my class will be out for the next two weeks after she has her tonsils and adenoids removed tomorrow. I would be sympathetic to any child and their family looking at surgery and two weeks of recovery.

However, it struck me today that many of my students are in a tough position when it comes to things like this. Her mom is a single mother and she can't take two weeks off from work. Most people can't. Luckily, the grandmother lives nearby and she will take some time off to help out. This family is also lucky enough to have health insurance, something many of our families don't have.

On the whole, this family is in a better position to weather this health challenge than many.

I mentor this little girl's older sister, a 3rd grader. About six weeks ago I talked to their mom because I noticed that she was having trouble seeing well, not huge trouble but I thought she might need glasses. Our clinic aide immediately knew that she does need glasses and had some earlier this year. (Glasses and young children do not go well together - they are frequently lost or broken.) Mom told me that she had an eye appointment in January. They had to wait until then for it to be long enough since the last appointment for the insurance. It turns out that appointment is tomorrow, the same day as her sister's surgery.

Again, luckily mom has been able to find someone to pick the older sister up from school and take her to the eye doctor.

I am quite impressed with everything this mother has managed to coordinate quickly (the surgery was bumped up a few weeks this morning). Her daughter seems almost excited about the surgery. Apparently she has been told she will get lots of ice cream and sorbet.

Dealing with something like this would intimidate me between the concern for my child and the logistics of it all. And I have a helpful husband. I am lucky. Many people aren't.