Thursday, May 26, 2011

Me and My Homework Issues

I have issues with homework. In 13 years of teaching I've drastically changed my homework thoughts and gone to basically no homework. Now that I teach first grade that's not really shocking. But even in fourth and fifth grades homework was extremely minimal and quite nontraditional.

A school district in New Jersey is reconsidering its homework policy (or, it sounds like, considering formalizing a policy). They are thinking of not assigning homework over weekends or holidays and that homework should only be ten minutes per grade level (meaning for third grade it would take 30 minutes, for seventh grade it would take 70 minutes).

The money quote, in my mind:

Giaquinto said. "We want to make sure the homework we are sending home is meaningful."

The recommendations are aimed at ensuring students are not assigned busywork such as 25 math problems when five would sufficiently prove a child mastered a skill. The changes would allow students to have time for extracurricular activities and quality time with their families, officials said.

The idea that we need to create a policy to make sure homework is meaningful causes me pain. Homework seems to me to be one of those things we continue to do because it has always been done. How many teachers have taken a serious look at their homework expectations, reflected on them, and continued to do what they've been doing?

I feel even more strongly anti-homework now that I have a child in school. She is not an overly-scheduled child by any stretch. But I want her to be able to run around outside after school, play around on the piano, or just read. She's doing plenty of great learning through those activities.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Setting the Bar Too High

I think I'm a good teacher. I feel pretty confident in that statement. But I'm not the teacher I want to be most of the time. It's too hard, I'm too lazy, whatever.

But for the past two days I've been that teacher. And I'm exhausted.

For the past week my first graders have been forming questions about ladybugs, researching to find the answers and planning a book for us to write together. Yesterday we spent our whole morning (Mondays are a shorter day for us) taking what we had planned and writing it on large paper for our book. It was done in small groups and I spent the entire time moving from one group to the next to encourage, help, redirect, whatever was needed. By the time they went to lunch I was wiped. In the afternoon they continued to work on these pages straight through our free choice play time up until dismissal. No one even complained when they realized there had been no free choice.

This morning we looked through yesterday's efforts and our research on non-fiction texts and worked to create a cover, title page, table of contents, glossary, and about the author page. They worked on them this morning and some more this afternoon and some still need a bit more time tomorrow. Again, I wandered from group to group supporting in whatever way was needed. Their book is going to be amazing (pictures to come soon).

During free choice I worked one-on-one with kids to be sure they understood something that seemed complicated to many during our calendar time.

During math I again worked one-on-one with kids to assess their understanding of coins (our grade level's current common assessment). We wrapped up our day by beginning to organize the pictures they took of shapes for our movie.

Plus, while my class was at PE I met with a former student, now a third grader, that I mentor once a week.

Being the teacher I want to be requires that I am 'on' 100% of the time. I don't think that's humanly possible.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Social Studies, Writing, Priorities and Who Knows What Else

My penultimate post for the year is up on At least I think it's my penultimate, I've sort of lost track at this point in the year.

This one is about fitting social studies in our day. My priorities in first grade are reading, writing, and math, as well as getting along, social skills, patience, playing, speaking skills, etc., etc., etc. So, social studies, and science for that matter, are pretty low on the list. Integrating them into other areas of our day is critical.

Writing for teachinghistory has been a fabulous experience this year. It's been a new thing for me to do and I've learned a lot through it. That said, one of my favorite parts is seeing what quote they pull out to highlight in large letters on the side of each post. This time it's "I want to correct misperceptions, expose them to surprising ideas, and generally encourage an interest in understanding how our world has changed over time."

They always manage to pull out a quote that, when I read it standing alone like that, makes me feel fabulous as a writer. I wonder how I can do that for my students...

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Learning Fail

My second grader requested help with her homework recently. That usually just means she wants someone to listen to her talk through it. I was happy to do that.

Then she told me she wanted to do each of the four math story problems using a different strategy so that she would get a good grade. I couldn't hear her read the first story problem to me because I was so distracted by that comment.

After talking through all of the problems she ended up using two different strategies, one of them three times. I tried to explain to her that the reason her teacher has taught them a variety of strategies is so that they have options and can use whatever works best for them. I'm not sure she believed me.

We see all of her tests and talk with her about homework and school. I try to ensure that our conversations focus on what she has learned and the process rather than the grade but she's clearly getting another message somewhere. It causes me pain that my seven-year-old is losing the joy of learning. She's still got ten years before she graduates from high school. What will those years do to her?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Movie Time

We recently got two brand-new fabulous cameras through Donor's Choose. Thanks to those we were able to speed up our progress on creating a 100th Day movie (the 100th day of school was a good 50 days back but give us credit for perseverance at least!). This week we finally took the last picture and recorded the narration. I say we, but actually, the kids planned, counted, and took every one of these pictures, typically without any involvement from me.

Now we're working on a movie about shapes. For this one the kids have been wandering the school in groups of three during math work stations searching out just the right shapes to photograph. They've taken some that I think are stunning. I'll share that as soon as it's ready.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Color Me Shocked

I spent at least 20 minutes today working one-on-one with a student (and trying really hard not to have my head explode). It began with a guided reading group discussion. We were reading a non-fiction book and I was asking the boys to look at the table of contents and tell me about each part of the book. This boy was confusing two parts and I was trying to guide him to clear up the confusion. My prompt ended up with me asking him to read a specific sentence and he could not identify where it began.

I realized he had no idea what clues show where a sentence begins and ends. I have noted that he uses upper and lower-case letters randomly in his writing but I hadn't identified the cause being a lack of understanding as to the nature of a sentence. So, I asked the other boys to identify the beginning of sentences, just to check. They were fine. I had them explain how to identify the beginning of a sentence and then sent them on their way. My little friend still couldn't tell me so we kept working.

I gave up on that specific sentence and just asked him to show me where any sentence started. We struggled through this for a while. I grabbed highlighter tape and marked the beginning of sentences when he would finally identify one. Each time I had him tell me how he knew it was the beginning of a sentence (I asked the same even when it wasn't so he had to justify any choice).

This is clearly not something he understands still. We will keep working on it.

I was so surprised. This student passed the end-of-first-grade benchmark for our reading assessment. This involved reading a text (fiction or non-fiction depending) with at least 90% accuracy with a certain read rate and retelling and reflecting upon it. He did well. But he doesn't understand what a sentence is. To be honest, I'm not sure now if he truly knows what a word or a letter is. We'll have to check on that.

Once I got past my shock and frustration I began to wonder how often we miss these gaps and/or misconceptions. I would have said this student had made fabulous academic progress this year. I was actually thrilled. I feel as though I've been shot down.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Ups and Downs

I have shingles right now. Quite possibly that's Too Much Information for you. Sorry. If you are unfamiliar with shingles the quick explanation is that it is the chicken pox virus reawakening in your body and giving you a rash, often painful and/or itchy. Not fun. Plus, it's a virus so you feel tired, achy, and cranky.

So, that's how I've been in the classroom. Even once I started taking Advil (because my sister explained to me that chronic pain is awful and there is no reason to do that to yourself, thankfully) I was still not my best.

I found myself with absurd expectations for my students. Somehow I seemed to forget that they are six or seven years old. Then, when they didn't meet those expectations (what? you can't all sit quietly and whisper for a few minutes after working for the past hour? why not?) I would fly off the handle.

I would explain what I expected them to do and why. That's pretty reasonable and not a half bad idea. However, I would do so ad nauseum. The really pathetic part is that a voice inside of me kept saying, "They're not hearing a word you are saying. You sound like the teacher in Charlie Brown to them right now." Even then, I couldn't help myself. I kept talking at them.

I know we all have our ups and downs about everything we do. I'm hoping to swing myself back to some ups pretty quick in the classroom.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Success (at least on one day)

For a good ten years, at least, I've been teaching language arts using a workshop model. This year we tried something more daring and went to what we call L.A.B. (language arts block). We do a focus lesson at the beginning and then the kids are in charge of their learning, mostly, for an hour or more. We might call them to read with us or for a writing conference but otherwise they decide how to spend their time. They may be writing, reading, or doing a work station (listening work station, word work, buddy reading, poetry, etc.). It hasn't always been perfect, but it's been pretty exciting. One day I was so impressed with them (in a positive way, unlike some days when I'm really impressed with their ability to drive me crazy) that I took a video of the class.

You see kids reading whatever they want, writing about whatever they want, and working on their literacy work stations. Some are chatting together (maybe about their work, maybe not) but they are all pretty darn engaged. It thrilled me.

By the way, the little one who was clearly looking for some help from me did get it as soon as I stopped recording. I promise.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Lulu and the Brontosaurus

If you haven't read Lulu and the Brontosaurus by Judith Viorst go get it now. I checked it out from the library after reading a slew of positive reviews back in December. I thought it would be a good one to read to my girls on the two hour drive to their grandparents for the holidays. It was. They loved it. As soon as we finished they wanted me to read it again. I was unwilling to do so immediately but did promise to read it on the drive home.

My students loved it just as much as my daughters. One favorite part was Lulu's song she sings as she heads off looking for a brontosaurus for a pet. They would be singing it at all times during the day without even realizing. It's quite catchy. In fact, if you are against having it as an earworm I suggest you don't watch the video of the class singing it. (This video was taken so long ago two of those little darlings have moved away.)

Monday, May 09, 2011

Our (Sort-Of) Garden

For two years now I've been attempting to get a garden going in a space between our building and our modular building. I'm not a gardener, by any means, which is one of the things has held back our progress. Fortunately a fabulous fifth grade teacher has jumped in and he and his class have planted the trees in the middle.

The first day I take my darlings out to the garden I just give them a spade and show them where they can dig (which is just about anywhere since we've only tackled small areas for actually gardening). They just dig and see what they find. They love finding the roots of the weeds and the worms and bugs crawling all around. Clearly it's exhausting work if this little guy is any indication.

We went out for a second time last week and did some actual weeding. My hope is that we can clear the weeds along the sidewalk on one side because last year's class managed to plant day lilies there that are back. This end of the sidewalk (where I was working with some kids) got pretty well weeded, but we've still got a ways to go.

Finding a pretty day to get out there is sometimes a challenge. So we were out there after having the first grade Mother's Day tea that morning. Several girls were not dressed for weeding. They got some chalk and drew some flowers for us next to our garden instead.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we'll make something of a dent in this area this year!

Monday, May 02, 2011

My Love for VoiceThread

I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing I can't use VoiceThread for in the classroom. We've used in every subject area and commented on VoiceThreads from other classes. I love it. So, it's not surprising that I focused a post for the National History Education Clearinghouse on it. Some of what I describe there is shown in action through these videos as well. Of course, that's focused on just how to use VoiceThread in the area of history in the primary grades, but if you haven't explored VoiceThread it might be an easy introduction.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Chicks and Writing

Tomorrow I'm taking our chicks into my classroom. Several weeks ago our family got four little chicks, temporarily. We do a CSA through the summer and the farm offers chicks as well. This year we went for it. We got four chicks (apparently they are very social animals so you have to take at least four), some food, and Farmer Bob's booklet about caring for them. Next weekend we will return them to the farm (where I believe they will live long lives providing eggs, so don't disillusion me). They are quickly becoming chickens and we can't have those at our home, both for legal reasons and our sanity.

I know my first graders will love having the chicks visit. I chose a Monday because it's a short day so the chicks won't disrupt learning as much as they might on another day. In addition, I hope that the students will be excited enough about the chicks to want to write about them this week.

My oldest daughter, a second grader, has been writing about them on a blog. Lots of wonderful friends have left her comments and she is loving it. I want my students to see that and to see the excitement. Then maybe they will write about the chicks (or other things) for our school newspaper.