Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Brilliant Donalyn Miller

Just before the winter holidays I had the opportunity to hear Donalyn Miller speak. There are so many reasons I enjoyed my day - she is a classroom teacher, right now, she was in her classroom with her students the day before she was with us - she is a Texan with just enough of an accent to remind me of my home state but not so much that it drives me nutty - she sings the praises of twitter and online networks - she loves books and reading and teaching.

Donalyn is highly reflective, a quality I believe to be critical for educators. She asks herself why about everything she does. If there isn't a good reason for doing it, she stops. Sounds simple but it truly brilliant.

She's also highly reflective about her students. If a child is not reading during their independent reading time, she spends a few days observing closely. She looks for why the student is not reading and what they are doing instead. Then she is able to talk with them and work with them to create a plan for reading. She watches what students are reading in order to help them find new books, books similar and books that will stretch them.

While the basics of Donalyn's book, The Book Whisperer, should be in place in classrooms everywhere, they aren't. Sadly. However, even if all classrooms allowed book choice and instituted significant amounts of independent reading time at school there would still be much to learn from Donalyn. I just finished rereading The Book Whisperer and found myself reflecting on ways we use our time in my classroom and my expectations for my first graders. It's certainly got me thinking.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Children are People Too

A kindergarten teacher friend was chastised by an administrator because a couple of her kindergarten students were talking about Christmas rather than whatever their task was at that given moment. This was in the week before Christmas. I can't put into words how absurd and surreal this feels.

My frustration with this is immense. I am left with the sense that either this administrator does not have an understanding of five-year-olds and/or does not respect them as people. Is the expectation that students can only discuss topics of their choice during recess and lunch? Is that how human beings function?

We began our school year with the StrengthsFinder. The idea is to recognize and build on the strengths of our staff. Every teacher, instructional assistant, and administrator took the survey and identified their top five strengths. We charted those across teams and school-wide. We found similarities and areas we lacked as a staff. We talked about ways to use our strengths to grow individually and as teams and as a school.

We do just the opposite with kids. From stamping out their natural excitement about things, including Christmas, to seeing them only as test scores on whatever sort of assessment we are using at that time, we do not recognize or build on their strengths. Why on earth do we do one thing for adults and exactly the opposite for children? Do we truly think that they are a completely different species and need completely different treatment?

Children are people. They are younger than the rest of us but still people. We need to put ourselves in their shoes.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Parents are Always Teachers

Today is my parent’s 44th anniversary.* I have been blessed to grow up with a model of a marriage worth emulating. I’m not saying that my parents have a perfect marriage. I don’t believe such a thing exists. They have been through difficult times in those 44 years but they are together and they are happy. This is clear because they just spent a good amount of the past four months traveling together around the U.S. in a Prius. That's a pretty good test of a marriage in my mind.

The saying goes that parents are their child's first and most important teacher. From personal experience I know that to be true. Even now, at nearly forty, I can see everyday things that I learned from my parents. Some of that is because I am now a parent and I watch and hear my parents in myself. I hear my father as I tease our stubborn, stubborn five-year-old. I hear my mother as I work through homework with a frustrated nine-year-old. 

I hear my parents in my interactions with my husband. This, too, is not surprising. Aside from my own marriage there is no marriage I know as well as I know my parents'. I am lucky to have that marriage be one that I want to look to rather than one to fight against. It's easy to continue a pattern that exists. I'm also lucky, I believe, to have seen some of the rough patches (likely not all of them) and seen my parents come through them. I expect rough patches in my own marriage but I also expect we will come through them together.

My mother has long been someone worth copying. I've watched her organize people at church to help one person going through a rough period or to help entire families and groups. She was, by profession, a nurse and I saw her in emergency rooms and nursing homes, patiently listening, gently caring for both patients and families. She can be hot headed and quick to anger when someone weaker has been wronged or hurt. She will make phone calls and write letters and speak out loudly and clearly. She can be stubborn (maybe we see a trend with the little five-year-old) in all the ways I hope my own daughters can be. Holding one's ground and standing up for what she believes in. 

My father has been my model as a reader (although my mother reads nearly as much). For years he took three different newspapers - mostly for the comics - and more magazines than I can count. He has cut back on those things but still has more reading material delivered to his home than some entire communities do. He will read anything you put in front of him and give you his honest opinion about it. He is also a natural teacher (as is my mother). Watching him with my daughters I see in him the reasons that all three of his siblings are teachers. He is not, at least not by profession. When my girls ask questions he responds with questions. When they say things that don't make sense he questions them, gently, carefully, pushing their understanding.

As a teacher I am grateful to have learned questioning rather than telling and reading widely and often from my father, and patience and care and speaking out and standing up from my mother. I am a better teacher for having grown up with them. I am a better wife, a better mother, and a better person as well.

*Yesterday was my 15th anniversary and tomorrow is my grandparents’ 67th anniversary. In case that’s not crazy enough, the other grandparents shared my anniversary.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

I'm an Elementary School Teacher

Last week I wrote about what my job entails. One of my posts focused on the academic pieces, another on the students, and one more about the flotsam and jetsam that must be handled.

In all of my thinking and writing about my job, safety never crossed my mind. I’m not sure why that is, especially since I've had many conversations with my first graders in the past week about keeping bodies and selves safe (there has been a lot of very physical play at recess and some unkind words at other times).

Even when I do think about what I need to do as a teacher to keep my students safe it is focused on their emotional well-being and managing minor bumps and bruises. Life and death situations do not cross my mind.

I sincerely hope that will continue to be true in the future. After the horrifying events at Sandy Hook Elementary on Friday I don’t know. It’s not that I have any question about what I, my colleagues, and every teacher would do in such a situation, it’s simply that it has never occurred to me that such a need would arise.

I learned of the tragedy during lunch and spoke with two colleagues about it before having to teach again. I was in shock and I believe that one of the first things I said was, “This happens in high schools. This is a high school thing.”

Believing that has allowed me to live as though this could never happen to me, to my daughters, to my students. I can live that way no longer.

Tomorrow I will follow our regular routine. We will read, work on word study, go to P.E., play, and get through our day. Those routines will help all of us to believe that things are normal. But I will also be hyper award of my students’ sense of safety, physical and emotional. I will be prepared to have tough conversations if they bring up questions, worries, or stories they have heard. I will do everything in my power to keep them safe and to ensure they feel safe.

I've written twice about how September 11th impacted me as a teacher. My most vivid memories are not of that day but of September 13th, the day we returned to school. Based on those memories I am expecting tomorrow to be exhausting and emotionally draining. In spite of that, I'll just be glad to be together.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Behind the Scenes

Here comes day three of me babbling on about what a teacher's job entails. Day one was about societal views of said job, day two focused on more up close expectations (parents and such), and now we'll look at realities that most folks may not realize happen.

Now that we've covered the basics of instruction and the work involved in knowing our students we can talk about what a teacher's daily life looks like. Those first two parts of my job are what I love. I love figuring out each individual student so that I can help them find books they want to read, topics they are excited to write about, and make connections to math and science and history with them. I genuinely love digging into the skills and facts they have to learn to understand what that means for a six-year-old and how to help them understand it. Those things are challenging and exciting and keep me going everyday.

These others are not. Some are just time consuming. Just coordinating schedules with an occupational therapist and a speech teacher can get complicated. Then actually supporting the student in using the skills he is learning with those teachers is a struggle. Mentoring new teachers and working with pre-service teachers is wonderful to me because it pushes me to be the best teacher I can be. But it also consumes precious planning time and requires me to think about what those teachers need as well as what my students need.

Some of these items are both time consuming and of questionable worth. Administering the myriad of required assessments takes many days out of each year. The reading assessment we use is given two to three times a year (depending on the student) and is done so one-on-one. It is, however, a pretty useful assessment so I don't begrudge the time. The math assessment we give twice a year (I do it in small groups) feels much less useful to me. I don't feel as though I learn much about my students from it so it doesn't help me as a teacher. Then there are the other random assessments for which I see little to no value for different reasons - we don't get the scores back in a meaningful time frame or the assessment doesn't seem to be developmentally appropriate (often a problem with young children).

Many meetings also fit into the time consuming and questionable worth category. Not all, some are well worth the time, but many. I'm lucky enough to be at a school that only holds school-wide staff meetings once a month and our team meetings are once a week for an hour. There are plenty of other meetings however. Plenty of these meetings are now focused on PLCs which require extra assessments and paperwork at other times.

Finally there are the tasks that I wish I had a secretary for: collecting picture or field trip money, collecting forms, stuffing Wednesday folders, hanging up artwork around the room and in the hall, and such.

I'm sure I'm forgetting plenty of what teachers do. It's a complex job that requires one to be constantly on their toes, thinking back and ahead at the same time while still being patient, thoughtful, and compassionate. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

My Job When It Matters

Yesterday I wrote about what society expects of me as a teacher. What I didn't mention there, but came to mind as I reread what I wrote is that those societal expectations all come down to getting my kiddos to pass standardized tests.

However, when society comes in contact with schools, because they have children there or volunteer or something that brings them in, their expectations change. Those instructional expectations remain, although they may not be quite as powerful, but they are joined by other expectations.

When school stops being purely theoretical, as it is for most newscasters and politicians, different things matter. Students are people rather than standardized test scores. Parents want me to care about their children. This looks different for every parent and child. It might be supporting a shy student to help them find their voice in the classroom. It might be making sure a child is wearing their glasses everyday. It might be reminding a student to make eye contact as they talk to me. It might be making sure they don't get anything with meat in it at lunch. It might be listening to their stories when they walk in each morning.

Some of these expectations are ones parents specifically ask about, such as the glasses or eye contact or meatless meals. Other expectations are never voiced aloud, may not even be conscious thoughts for the parents. But they are there and they are important.

This part of my job is about really knowing each student. Not just what they can and can't do academically, but who they are. Without this the academics don't happen.

More tomorrow...

Monday, December 10, 2012

One Facet of My Job

Lately I've been thinking a lot about what is expected of me in my job. In my mind it seems to be broken into three parts: what society in general sees as my job, what society more specifically sees as my job, and what my job really seems to look like when you're up close and personal.

For today I'm going to focus on the first one. Expectations for teachers, as seen in news report after news report, seem pretty clear. We must ensure that our students meet specific academic benchmarks. Sounds pretty simple.

When I look at it more closely it is a lot more complicated. Let's just take reading, a critical piece of first grade. There is a very specific benchmark for my kiddos in reading. Getting them there requires a cycle of assessment and instruction.

In case those words don't conjure up specific images for you, this means continually assessing what each student knows. In reading this means listening to students read out loud and then talking to them about what they read. Knowing where they are as readers allows us to then teach. The assessment tells us what skills they need more support in so we can teach for those. Then we have to assess to see if they have learned them. Assess, instruct, assess, instruct, assess, instruct, ad infinitum.

We're doing this for each student on and on. Plus, we're doing it in each subject area.

Teaching well requires knowing what students do and don't know at all times. That's no small task. Then creating instruction to meet those specific, individual needs. Another big job. Just standing up and telling students something does not, in any way, guarantee they have learned it.

Of course, this doesn't begin to cover what a teacher does each day. Tomorrow I'll tackle the more specific societal expectations, the ones that come when society actually comes in contact with school.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Weathering the Storm

As teachers (and maybe just as people) we struggle when it comes to sharing the good vs. the bad. While there are folks who seem to enjoy complaining, most of us often sugarcoat things. Teachers especially tend to celebrate the positives, even as they note and inwardly cry over the failures.

I believe recognizing the positives, talking about them, and, yes, even celebrating them helps. It's too easy for teachers to obsess over what isn't working, progress that isn't happening, and lessons that went wrong. It can wear one down.

This is on my mind as a result of reading John Spencer's post about ways to handle a tough period. Not everyone is as willing to share the hard parts and that got me thinking. (As always his thinking and writing are worth reading.) I'm not having a rough year with my class (as I've mentioned they're pretty darn darling) but we're in a bit of a rough patch as a school.

It's not something people want to talk about openly. Our problems are discussed in whispers, while eyes dart back and forth. We don't really like to admit that we're having such a tough time.

I'm in my 15th year at this school. I've been lucky enough to be a part of growing this school into a powerhouse, a well-respected school with a fabulous staff. We're feeling that slipping away and we don't know what to do.

Part of the reason we stay mostly quiet, I think, is that we aren't sure where the problems originate. Teachers are feeling micromanaged and disrespected in a variety of ways. Is that something our administration could remedy or is this coming down from our cluster or even a district-wide problem? An insane amount of our time is spent in meetings, meetings for which we have minimal control over our agendas. Who is dictating this? It's not clear.

Maybe some openness about the tough times we are in would go a long way towards improving the situation.

Friday, December 07, 2012

So Emotional

Back at the end of October Clarence Fisher tossed out an idea. I wasn't sure how to do this with my students. For whatever reason I had trouble wrapping my head around it. In spite of that I joined in. My inability to picture this (along with life in general) made me hold off for a while. This week I finally got started. Each day I sent home three flip cameras with kids to record whatever they wanted that afternoon/evening.

My reactions to this (which is not yet complete as I have more students still to participate) have varied but all been strong. Initially I was astounded by how excited they were when they returned the cameras to school the next morning. I didn't have to ask for them. They pulled them out of their backpacks with a flourish, ready to share their lives.

Then I watched a few and loved seeing what six-year-old filmographers do. The joy was so obvious and infectious. I wanted to just sit and watch but had to pick the kids up from music.

Finally when I had the chance to really dig into the videos I was overwhelmed by the generosity of my students' families. They allowed my students to record their homes and their lives. I watched them reading bedtime stories, making dinner, playing with siblings, and giving tours of their homes. My perception may be off, but I feel like I know these students so much better now than I did before watching these.

Here's a brief taste:

I did not edit that in any way. That's what you get when you give first graders a video camera and set them free. I am in love.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

VSTE Highlights

I spent the past three days down in Virginia Beach with a bunch of amazing educators talking about technology (and, shockingly enough, teaching and learning) at the annual VSTE conference.

As is so often true for me lately the best moments in the conference were the conversations I had between sessions, during meals, and in every free moment. Virginia is not a huge state but it is full of wise, thoughtful, often witty educators. (Some of my favorites from around the state are Tim Stahmer, Tim Owens, Paula White, Becky Fisher, Jon Becker, and Tom Woodward.) Plus, VSTE folks don't take themselves too seriously, something I greatly respect. One more thing, I've never attended a conference with this much food.

One of the highlights this year was the first keynote. Last year that role was played, exceptionally well, by Chris Lehmann. This year it was Steve Dembo. I have followed Steve on twitter and read his blog for some time but had never heard him speak. After Chris last year, I was a bit unsure. I should not have worried. Steve was phenomenal. At 8:00 am, after traveling into the wee hours, he was far beyond high energy, inspiring, funny, and the time flew. One of the most impressive things about Steve is his ability to look at the world, notice things, turn them around in new ways, and find the humor. I would love to work in a school with him. (Of course, that's also true for everyone listed above...)

The deeper thoughts from VSTE are still rolling around in my mind. More to come.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Learning from Co-Teaching

For the majority of the fifteen years I've taught at my wonderful school I have been lucky enough to spend at least part of my day co-teaching. During that time I've co-taught with at least a dozen different people (some years I co-taught with more than one person at different points of the day). I have learned from all of them.

This year my administration partnered me up with someone new. She's not new to our school but I have never co-taught with her. She is due to have a baby any day now and today should be her last day for this year. Unfortunately I had to be out of school today. I'm sorry to have missed the last day we had as a team, at least for this year.

She has a lovely long-term substitute with whom I will work for the rest of the year. That will be fine. I will learn from her and we'll have a great time with the kiddos.

But I'm sad to lose my current partner. She has more experience with first graders than I do and has a wealth of wonderful ideas.

Even more, though, I will miss her calm, quiet nature. I listen to hear talk to the students and am reminded of how I want to sound. I watch her facial expressions and body language and try to mimic it. She has a gentle way with children that I envy.

I wish her a wonderful maternity leave with her precious baby. I truly do. At the same time, I hope I will have another opportunity to try and soak up the way she interactions with children and continue to learn how to do a better job of it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Banning Fluorescents

Thanks to the inspiration of some fabulous colleagues in my building I have been slowly moving toward never turning on my overhead lights. A few years ago I bought a couple of small, table lamps from Ikea for cheap.

They didn't light up the room but did add some nice ambiance. The silver lamp up front in this picture was passed on by a colleague when she decided it wasn't working the way she wanted in her classroom. It gives off some great light.

This year I decided to buy a floor lamp like many teachers in my building and see how that works. When I went to get one they were on sale so I bought two. Of course.

I've got one on each side of my room and they do a pretty good job, even this time of year with our dark, dreary days.

This weekend we put up the Christmas decorations at our house and I decided to bring some lights to school. They were bought post-Christmas one year because I couldn't pass up the discount but they have never been used. (We have lots of white lights because we got married in late December and decorated the reception hall with Christmas trees as well as lights on the stairwells and bushes outside.) These lights made my class ooh and aah today when I plugged them in.

There are still two boxes at home and I think I'll bring them in to put up on the other side of the room. The inspiration for this came from another wonderful teacher whose white lights I see as I pass her room regularly.

Now our lighting seems complete.

We almost never have all of our overhead lights on. Typically I flip one of our two switches but at times we don't have either on. Hopefully we can do that even more often. Our room feels so much cozier, calmer, and more welcoming this way.

Saturday, November 24, 2012


Every week everyone in our school district (and that's a lot of us) gets an email newsletter with various information. It includes several sections, including About Our People (a place to highlight employees' accomplishments), Call for Coaches, and a list of employees or former employees who have died. I skim through most sections every week. I do skip the coaches one as it doesn't interest me in any way.

This week's newsletter caught my attention in a new way.

In the midst of all this fairly mundane information is the quick fact that sexual harassment is prohibited in my school district. Did we need to state that in our weekly newsletter? Is this a new policy?

Now I'm wondering if other things I assumed were prohibited might be perfectly acceptable...

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

So Many Great Moments

As I thought about what I wanted to post on Facebook tonight for my "Great school moment" from today I realized there were so many I couldn't possibly condense it enough for an update there. Instead, it becomes a blog post here.

First thing this morning a student came up to me asking about a coat I had promised him. A colleague offered her son's old coat to this little boy who doesn't have a winter coat. I grabbed the coat and was reminded by this fabulous colleague to tell my little guy that the coat is reversible (orange on one side and camouflage on the other). I demonstrated this for my student and his face lit up. Not two minutes later he comes up to me, hugging his coat, and said, "My coat is so soft." On the way out to recess later he stopped me to say, "I really like my new coat." I introduced him to the teacher who had provided the coat and he was excited to meet her (although that would not have been obvious to anyone watching - but I swear it's true).

The next great moment was actually many moments. As a first grade team we did special Thanksgiving rotations today. Two classes team up to do something fun and the kids rotate through the different rooms. A teammate and I had the kids making butter (you put heavy whipping cream in a container and shake it until it thickens into butter - it should only be done if you have many kids to help). The whole process was pretty exciting to the kids, but when we opened the container and showed them the butter the gasps and exclamations were astounding. (This is from the 3rd and final group when I got with it enough to record their reactions.)

In the short time we had after lunch before our next set of rotations a fifth grader came to read to us. She had earned the chance to do something special and picked reading to a younger class. She introduced herself, read the book, showed the pictures, and answered questions. She was poised, patient, and just fabulous with the kids. It also seems that when she returned to class she was really excited about what she done. A win-win for sure.

There were so many other little moments, that on plenty of days would have been my focus. Today was just so fabulous I can barely begin to recount it.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Introducing David

As I may have mentioned (ad nauseum to those who see me daily) I have a truly delightful class this year. My kids are interesting and have great personalities. They aren't vanilla ice cream kiddos, by which I mean kids who just sit quietly all the time and follow every direction. We have snags and challenges just nothing major.

One little guy sort of shows it all about our class. I'm going to call him David after the main character in David Shannon's books. We spend a lot of time being driven crazy by him but adoring him all the same.

His kindergarten teacher, in the first week of school, asked me if I'd seen his grouchy face. She said I would love it. I do. He gets upset and huffs and puffs, stamps around, and scrunches up his face. His two favorite phrases are "That's not fair!" and "Not again!"

Another teacher works one-on-one with David everyday for half an hour and she has the greatest stories to tell about their time together. She is an astounding teacher and has infinite patience with him. I'm amazed by it. Recently she picked him up one morning and he was cranky. She did everything she could to build him up and keep him going.

He got really stubborn and told her that he wasn't going to read the S's at the end of words (something they had been working on). He read an entire book without the S's. If he messed up and read the word correctly he would go back, reread, and leave it off. He worked harder to read the book incorrectly than he would have done if he had read it accurately.

He, like the rest of the class, challenges me, keeps me on my toes, and keeps me smiling. Thank goodness for them all.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Testing Us All

Administering a standardized test to first graders is as painful as it sounds. On Wednesday we did a little bit of prep so they had some idea of what to expect and what to do. Thursday morning was the main event.

I set my kiddos up all around the room to give them each enough space. Passed out the test books and freshly sharpened pencils. Read the directions and went through the sample questions. So far, so (mostly) good.

The test is non-verbal and timed. Both positive things for first graders. My role was to make sure students didn't skip questions and that they were quiet throughout. Both were a challenge.

One little friend (about whom I already have so many stories) talked to himself throughout the entire 30 minutes (shockingly he was the only one who didn't finish all the questions). I mostly tried to keep him at a whisper but did have to crack down when he actually called out to the girl closest to him. He can't not talk to save his life. I believe if he were standing behind a lion he would still not be able to be silent. (This lion has no sense of smell, obviously, or the talking thing would be irrelevant.)

When kiddos finished we checked to be sure they had an answer for every question and then gave them their book box, with a reminder to remain silent. First graders with boxes full of Mo Willems, Froggy, and Jan Thomas books can't be silent. No matter how hard they try. 

I worry about what all this testing is doing to our children. I genuinely have concerns about that. But right now, I'm much more worried about what it's doing to the teachers. My whole team was wiped out after administering a half hour test. It is absurd.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Begging for Money

Watching one of my squirmiest little guys sit in our 'meeting manager' chair (we only have the one so that's how we know who gets to use it each day - if you're the meeting manager it's your day with the chair) has me here asking for money. Sigh.

(This is not one of my little friends - just a buddy grabbed in the library one morning in order to get a picture with the chair when it was brand new.)

These chairs are amazing. They rock just enough for my squirmy kids to move a little without really distracting them. Sitting in this chair actually seems to help many of my kiddos focus more. The others, the ones who can focus without the chair, also love to sit in it. It's just fun for them. I don't blame them. I kind of want one in my size.

Today's meeting manager used the chair throughout most of the day. As he grabbed his backpack to go home he said, "I'm going to miss that chair."

If you're looking for a place to spend a few bucks and want to help out some squirmy first graders, check out our DonorsChoose project for a few more of these fabulous chairs. And thanks.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


Too many kiddos can really strain a school. It means overcrowded hallways, teachers working one-on-one with kids in every nook and cranny, lunch starting at 10:15 am and lasting past 1:00 pm, long waits for bathrooms (for students and teachers), and trailers taking over every flat spot of land. Special education and ESOL teachers, literacy and math coaches, and other specialists share offices in trailers or storage closets.  That's been our reality for a number of years.

This year a new school opened. Sixteen of our darlings headed over to that brand new school. About two hundred others were redistricted to another school nearby. Losing sixteen wouldn't be noticeable. Losing two hundred definitely is.

We expected to notice a difference this year. Quieter hallways, shorter waits for a bathroom, less chaos with fewer classes on the playground - that sort of thing. That has all come true.

We've also found some other, less obvious, but significant changes. The two hundred students who no longer attend our school all live in one apartment complex. It's not a great place to live in many ways. There are adults, mostly male, standing around outside at all hours, smoking, drinking. Some are waiting/hoping for day labor work. Others are just there. A ton of kids live there but are rarely seen. Parents don't let them play outside because they don't believe it is safe. It is right on an access road for a very busy road, but I would guess that's not the main concern. Many apartments hold multiple families. These students were, in many ways, our neediest students. 

Now that they are gone we are finding a different atmosphere in our building, our Parent Center and classrooms.

Parents who come in still have questions and need help. We still provide clothes, shoes, and winter coats to students. We still translate for parents at meetings and parent coffees. So much has not changed. 

At the same time, so much has. I wrote about this before without really understanding what I was seeing and thinking. Parent-teacher conferences really made it hit home for me. I had two no-shows out of fifteen students. That's an astoundingly great rate of participation for our families. One of my two no-shows is a little boy who lives in that same apartment complex. His brother is a fifth grader (our last grade) so they had the option to remain here this year. Other teachers were saying they've never had such high attendance rates at parent-teacher conferences. 

Many of our students are still living in poverty. Many are still learning English. Yet they seem to come from families with a better skill set for school and society.

Many of us have been discussing these changes, in hushed voices tinged with shame. We feel guilty because our lives seem to be easier now, our school calmer. But we worry. How are those kiddos doing? The school they attend now has no Parent Center, no parent liaisons to translate or coordinate with families. They cannot walk to their new school. Are they getting any support?

Sunday, November 11, 2012


I hate it when I realize that I'm getting frustrated with my students because I'm sending them mixed messages.

During guided reading groups I tend to get really irritated when students are struggling with a word and keep looking at me rather than at the word. On a good day I can remind them once before I get too annoyed. But it keeps happening and I keep telling them they need to look at the word in order to read it.

On Friday it hit me that one of the life skills we work really hard on all the time is making eye contact. I greet them at the door each morning and keep telling them good morning until they are making eye contact as we speak. We greet each other during morning meeting and work hard on our eye contact. When I conference with students about their reading or writing I work on eye contact as we talk. It tends to be difficult for many young kids to make eye contact regularly so it is something we practice often.

Then they sit down to read with me and I chastise them for making eye contact. Sigh.

This week I will work on encouraging them to look at the word they are struggling to read without frustration and without suggesting that looking at me is a bad thing to do.

Thursday, November 08, 2012


I wrote previously about my naivete in high school. I can remember talking to my best friend when we were in college and being shocked to find out so many of our classmates were having sex and drinking during high school. (How she was so aware and I was so clueless is astounding.)

Even twenty years later I remain pretty darn naive. I am aware of some horrible things in my students' lives over my fifteen years of teaching. My first year I had a boy whose mother had abandoned the family. Another student's mother had died not long after the girl's baby brother was born and the father was believed to be sexually abusing the daughters so the children were all removed from his custody. One girl's mother tried to commit suicide. One boy had a baby brother die. Another girl was raped multiple times by a family friend living with them temporarily. At least two girls had lost their fathers during their elementary school years. A couple of students were being raised by family members because their mothers were in mental institutions. Plenty of students fled their home countries out of danger to their families.

All of these things were explicitly told to me. They may have been shared by the families or read in a family history done by our school social worker or told to me by the child's previous teacher. In some way I was given notice of these traumas.

How many other traumas have I missed because I am too naive to believe these things happen? Have I had students who were abused and I missed the signs? Were there ones suffering from depression or other mental health challenges?

Children are amazingly strong and resilient. They overcome things that make me want to curl up and hide under the covers for days. I hope that I have given them the love, support, and safety they all need and deserve even if I was unaware of turmoil in their outside-of-school lives.

But the more I think about this the more I wonder. I'm familiar with statistics on abuse and mental health disorders. I know that some of our students face these problems. I know that some of the strangers I pass do as well. Which ones? Why them? How can we know? Only then can we do anything to help.

I don't want to become cynical instead of naive. Somewhere there must be a middle ground that allows me to carefully watch for concerns or signs of trouble while still believing in the inherent goodness of people...

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Fair Warning: Not about Education At All

This post is much more personal, political, and religious than I tend to be here. Feel free to skip it.

I don't know how the elections will play out on Tuesday and I don't know if specific comments will impact the chances of those who made them, but I have been so bothered by them I finally had to do something. When I am struggling in this way, writing is my solution.

As a woman, as a Christian (mostly, at least), and as a rape survivor I am shocked by comments made by some politicians lately. Religion plays in here because that seems to be at the root of these men's reasoning about rape and abortion. Typically my responses to media reports about rape are not impacted by my religious/faith/spiritual beliefs.

If these men had stated that they did not support abortion in the case of rape because they believe that murdering a fetus is a crime and one crime in response to another is not acceptable, I would not agree but I would accept their reasoning. Based on their Christian values (that I am assuming are in play) that would be logical.

My religion is also a factor, and a critical one in my response to these statements, because of my specific story. It's not a story I tell often. But I feel a need to tell it now.

I was sixteen years old and a youth delegate to my denomination's annual state conference. I traveled with one of our pastors and another respected member of our church to the conference. The youth delegates stayed in the dorms on the campus where the conference was held.

The conference lasted several days. There were a lot of fabulous activities for the youth delegates and we participated in the general conference sessions as well. Our time was pretty well structured and planned for the entire time. I vaguely remember meeting some wonderful teens from across the state. One of my favorite hymns I learned at that conference.

One of the other youth delegates was a recent high school graduate who, according to what he told people, wanted to become a minister. He was two years older than I and we spent a lot of time together. The last night of the conference he snuck down to my dorm room, something I probably thought was flattering and fun at the time. He tried to convince me to have sex with him and when I refused he raped me. 

My memories are blurred by time and pain but I remember crying and saying no, no, no again and again. I was terrified of what was happening but also afraid of getting in trouble because he was there in the first place. I told no one. 

The next morning, at the large, closing ceremonies, he came to see me as though everything was normal. He even made a comment along the lines of, "That wasn't so bad, was it?" 

I was at a church conference. He was a youth delegate who was going to become a minister. How could that have been rape? For two years I convinced myself it wasn't. I knew I was no longer a virgin, I wasn't that naive. I also spent a tense few weeks terrified of being pregnant. I got lucky there. I never had to make the decision about whether or not to abort a child conceived through rape.

More than two years later a chance question prompted me to defend my sexual history and choices (limited though they were) and confront the reality of what had happened. I was lucky enough to have someone in my life who forced me to get counseling and who supported me through months of pain, nightmares, and fear. 

The shame I still feel more than twenty years later is surprisingly strong. I was naive and had no idea how to handle such a situation. I believed in the goodness of others and found it hard to imagine anyone would do such a thing, much less a youth delegate to a church conference.

If you are not one of the 1 in 6 women to be raped in their lifetime it can be hard to truly understand the long-lasting trauma involved. For anyone to suggest that rape could be, in any way, intended by God is horrifying.

If you made it this far, please remember that this was my way of dealing with my frustration over these comments. I am not looking for sympathy. I am much stronger at 39 than I was at 16. In my perception rape is seen as less shameful now than it was twenty years ago. Mostly I think that is a good thing. Mostly I think that helps us move forward, in spite of comments like these made by certain politicians.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Number? Letter? Hard to Say

We do our afternoon dismissal online. Personally, I love it. It's silent so it doesn't disrupt anything we might be doing (usually me reading poetry to the kids) and it's in print so I can look back if I'm not sure a bus has or hasn't been called.

As I do occasionally have to be out of the classroom I have two students who go to one of our computers and  tell us when any new group is dismissed. My two little guys do a great job at this. At first I had dismissal open on my computer too, just to check. They've got it down now.

There is one small snag. Right there, under the '3:15 WALKERS' is the bit that throws them each day.

Every day they call out "Buses 2 and 7 are dismissed!" (or sometimes "Buses 5 and 7" depending on their perspective). Next week we're going to have to look at this carefully. It turns out we have a Bus S. I didn't know that. Not surprisingly my kiddos clearly don't know that.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Digital Halloween Costumes

We missed Monday and Tuesday of this week due to Sandy. It was probably a wise decision as plenty of folks (and schools) lost power. It did mean that our first day of school this week was Halloween. Surprisingly none of my first graders showed up at school in costume. I was somewhat disappointed.

Instead we created our own costumes, digitally at least. I put their faces into Pixie and they drew their favorite book character's body with their head. I modeled this with The Pigeon, which may have led to so many other Pigeons in my class. Or, they might just like The Pigeon that much.

We have spent a lot of time lately talking about characters in books we read and books we write so it was fun to use those characters in a new way.

I was especially impressed with the kiddos who added details around their face rather than just below it.

As an aside, one of the Pete the Cats looks an awful lot like the dinosaurs that child draws during writing workshop each day...

Thursday, November 01, 2012

The Benefits of Labels

Quick caveat: I don't feel a great urge to label students. I'm lucky to work at a school where the support students receive is based on their need, not their labels. It does matter when it comes to accommodations for standardized testing and it might matter more when kids get to middle and high school however. (I don't know enough beyond elementary to say.)

As a first grade teacher I have worked with students with special education labels every year. Those little darlings all had been identified in preschool. It's easy then to keep that label and support those students and give them those accommodations.

A student who gets to kindergarten or first grade without identified learning disabilities has a lot more trouble getting that label. I completely understand that we do not want to willy-nilly slap labels on students. I truly do.

That said, the testing that is done in the process of identifying learning disabilities gives so much information about how a child learns. It gives insight into visual or auditory processing difficulties for example. Unfortunately when a young child is up for discussion, the most frequent response is, "They are so young. Let's give them more time."

I don't really want the label. I want the testing. I want to understand what is keeping a student from learning the way all their peers are doing. But if you are testing a lot of students and not finding labels that is questioned. So we don't test. We don't learn. We don't understand. We don't help as well as we could.

I have reread this numerous times tonight trying to ensure my language actually conveys my thinking. I hope it does. I'm sure there are places here where the language I have used illuminates biases I have. If you notice any, please point them out to me. We are often blind to our biases and could use help from others identifying them.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Reason #732 Why I Love My school

Here are two notes I received this past week. The first was written at the bottom of a permission slip about a student's participation in a social skills group with our counselor. The parent gave permission and added this note:
"I don't know how to thank School Management because of all these hard work. Elementary is the best school."
(I changed the italicized words so that they don't name my school. I did the same with the following note to not name the student.)

This note was to me from a parent after his son received a postcard from me.
From Awesome Student- Father -
To Mrs. Orr Jennifer.
Thanks for the wonderful card that we received last week, Awesome Student is so lucky to have you as a great teacher, he loves you so much:
one more thing, Awesome Student he will miss you this Friday October 26th for a special holiday.
Thanks again
Awesome Student Father
I did not change the language in these notes because it impresses me so much that these parents are so invested in their children's schooling that they will write these notes with whatever English language ability they have gained so far. I love working at my school. Our students and families are fabulous.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

How Children Succeed (even if I can't)

How Children Succeed is sitting beside my bed, as it has been doing for weeks. I have many flags stuck in it, waiting for me to process my thinking here. But life has gotten a little out of my control in the past couple of weeks and this has slipped on the priority list.

Fortunately, others are doing a better job than I am. Diane Ravitch wrote about the book with a summary. Deborah Meier's comment is worth reading as well.

Valerie Strauss, of the Washington Post, interviewed Paul Tough about the book.

I will get my stuff together and get back to my thoughts about this book soon. I have to admit that I think Tom summed up my thoughts about the book in just one sentence in his comment on this previous post. That won't stop me from writing more though.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Gaining Street Skills

Last week our daughters were playing outside, as they often do. We're lucky to live on a pretty quiet cul-de-sac surrounded by a bunch of neighbors who know each other and enjoy spending time outdoors chatting and being together. There are quite a few kids in the neighborhood as well.

As we were getting dinner ready one daughter rushed in to tell us that there were police cars outside. We didn't think too much about it until we heard more information from the girls. Apparently the police officers were talking to all the kids. We went to investigate.

It turns out that a kid (probably 14 years old or so) had called the police because another kid's parents had screamed at him. I don't have the details from anyone who saw the incident so I can't really speak to details.

It lasted about 15 minutes and then things returned to normal.

Except for the fact that my daughters gained a lot of knowledge in that short time. They learned about what it means to be threatened (the boy was telling the police he felt threatened). They learned about some curse words. They learned what it means to interact with police officers.

They got a lot of streetwise knowledge in a really short time. They are nine and five. I didn't feel a great need for them to have that knowledge yet.

Recognizing that got me thinking about the many kids who live in neighborhoods where this sort of incident, a visit from the police, threats, curses, happen frequently. What does having knowledge of that world, of those types of behaviors mean for young children? When that is normal how does that impact their learning, their relationships, their life skills?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Library Goddess Emails

Background information:

  • Our librarian is the greatest in the world. 
  • Classrooms all have blue crates for collecting returned library books.
  • What follows is the text from emails sent by our librarian to the rest of the school. I found them brilliant and hilarious and felt a need to share.
  • Clearly she is inspired by literature, show tunes, and more.

I have spies
And they tell me there are books in your blue crate.
Are you hording them? Selling them on the black market? Using them as ransom for library pockets? These are just some of the options I have considered.

Happy Hour in the Library
This is for books only. Please do not be a spoil sport and not let your books come.

Blue crate all call
It is a blue crate party. Don't be the meanie, let your blue crate join in the glitter, cupcakes, and soda.

Running on empty (blue crates)
Looking out at the books resting under my crate
Looking back at the stories gone by like so many ice cream cones
In 3 hours, it will be noon and I will be running reports
I don't know what I am reading now, I'm just reading on.
(This means return your blue crates because I am running reports at noon.)

Peer Pressure
Return your blue crates, everyone is doing it.
Also, I am running overdue notices at noon for students. Prevent heartache! Prevent unneeded stress! Return blue crates.

library open
Cries me with silent lips, "Give me your baskets, your books, your huddled masses yearning to read today...The lamp is lit next to the library door."

Things that are welcomed in the library and the opposite
1. Blue crates with books
2. Students in groups of 3 to check out books
3. Cupcakes
And the opposite:
1. Empty blue crates
2. Ants in any group size
3. Zucchini

Multiple Choice Question
If the day's testing is over in the library, then I should
a. Stash my books in a fallout shelter for the Next Big Day
b. Give my books to the wild animals in the park
c. Return blue crates of books to the library
d. Sing songs about books in the library

Status Update
Library: Still Messy
Accepting Now: Blue Crates
Accepting After Noon: Students for checkouts who know how to spell their last name.

Mountain of blue crates
Let's see if we can create one this morning with all your book returns.

This is Just to Say
I have read
The books
That were in
The blue crate

And which
You were probably
For later

Forgive me
They need to be returned
So soon
And so today

Thanks WCW!

It's Raining Blue Crates
Reading level is rising - Shelves getting low
According to all sources, the library's the place to go
Cause today for the first day
Just about half-past ten
For the first time in history
It's gonna start raining blue crates.

The overdue notices are running at 10 this morning.
Get ready by:
     - Making signs to cheer the notices on
     - Set up water stations around the school
     - Return your blue crates by 10

There's something due any day
I will know right away
Soon as it shows

Blue crates come canonballin' down through the sky
Gleam on the spines
Hot as a trend

Please send

The air is hummin'
Blue crates commin'

Please send,
They're only just out of reach,
Down the hall, while you teach

Maybe right now?
Maybe right now?

Maybe right now!

(Brownie points if you can guess the song.)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Cranky, Cranky, Even Crankier

For reasons completely unrelated to Jay Mathews I'm in a pretty cranky mood this morning. Reading his newest post in said cranky mood probably did not set me up to be impressed by what he had to say. However, starting off with
Among the most disturbing facts about U.S. schools is that 17-year-olds have shown no significant improvement in reading since 1980.
certainly did not help.

Is he serious? That's one of the most disturbing facts?

Every year we test a different bunch of 17-year-olds as the bunch tested the previous year are now 18-year-olds. Somehow each bunch of 17-year-olds should be smarter than the ones that came before them. How does that work?

Are 17-year-olds now significantly better drivers than 17-year-olds were in 1980? Do we expect them to be? Are 17-year-olds significantly kinder, more generous now than 17-year-olds were in 1980? Should they be? Why should students now be smarter than students 30 years ago? Are we suggesting that those students 30 years ago weren't so bright?

We should set high expectations for our students and for our schools. But those expectations shouldn't be based on students doing better each year than the students before them.

Are the young journalists smarter, better writers, more thoughtful than the older journalists? If they were the 17-year-old in 1980 should they be losing their job to the 17-year-old coming up who should be a significantly better reader than they were. Watch out Jay Mathews!

Mathews goes on to write about the Common Core State Standards. (Virginia has not adopted them so I honestly haven't paid too much attention to them.) He manages to really get me riled up again when he says:
Supporting the new standards is a movement to improve children's reading abilities by replacing elementary school pablum with a rich diet of history, geography, science, and the arts.
(I will admit to checking a dictionary to be sure that my feelings of offense by the term 'pablum' were warranted. They most certainly were.)

As an elementary school teacher who spends a lot of time thinking about the texts I share with, read to, or assign my students, both fiction and nonfiction, I am highly offended by this idea.

With only a few minutes left before getting my students from art class, I am now going to focus on something much happier and more hopeful - planning reading groups.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Such a Lovely Kurd

Dear. Ms Orr
Dik. you. for. the kurd
I. hop. you had a good wekn 
This will likely hang up by my 'desk' for the rest of the school year as it makes me so happy for so many reasons.

A little darling brought this to me yesterday morning as a thank you for a postcard. (I try to send postcards to my students throughout the year saying how proud I am for something they did. I mail them to the children because I know the parents will also see them but it's so fun for kids to get mail. I sent my first batch of the year out last week.)

I love that she wrote me a thank you note. In multiple colors. With lovely decorations. On special paper. We don't see that much of this sort of thing at our school. It is wonderful.

I also love all the awesome things she's doing as a writer here. She has so many words she knows how to spell (dear, you, for, the, had, a, good). That's a great list for a beginning first grader. Then she clearly listened to sounds in other words (kurd for card, hop for hope, wekn for weekend). She has periods throughout her writing here. They aren't used correctly but she knows they should be there and she's trying them out. She's on her way to using them properly. I can also tell she reread this because she noticed she had forgotten the Ms. in my name and added it in later (in blue so I'm guessing after she had written the last line).

Honestly, something like this with all its wonderfulness can get me through some really rough times in the classroom.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Edscape Reflection

Yesterday I got up at 3 am to drive to New Milford, NJ for Edscape. (Had I realized how far north New Milford is I likely would never have registered. I'm glad I didn't know.) Edscape is a one-day conference hosted by Eric Sheninger, the principal of New Milford High School. (The picture here was taken by Eric. The school is absolutely stunning and just being there might have been worth the five hour drive.)

The day opened with a keynote from Vicki Davis. I was familiar with Vicki's work before yesterday and had seen her in passing at ISTE but had never heard her speak. She was phenomenal. She talked about how the only one we can change is our self. There was a lot of detail about ways to focus our own change and then, how powerful our own change can be. At one point she talked about the importance of attitude but did say that her attitude is the one that matters most. Vicki was funny, passionate, and inspirational. I walked away thinking that I will not do something in my classroom that I would not want done to my own children (or at least, I'll try not to).

The first session I went to was led by Lisa Thumann (one of the few people at Edscape I already follow on twitter and knew from conferences but I picked her session because it was the most intriguing). She led a conversation about tradition vs. innovation. It began with a brief intro from Lisa and then all of us brainstorming ideas or practices that are traditional or innovative. We then took sides on a few of them and had an interesting debate about the best way or content to teach. I love having these conversations with educators at all levels and from many different schools and districts. Those varied perspectives help me process things and better understand my own thinking. (I'm still thinking about teaching handwriting and/or keyboarding...)

For the second session I went to see another twitter friend, Paul Bogush. Again, his session was the most interesting to me. Paul is a middle school social studies teacher who does a lot of live streaming from his classroom. I have watched his students perform music, poetry, and listened to their podcasts before. He talked about how he does all of this. I'm not sure how this would look with first graders, but given how easy USTREAM makes it I am thinking about how to give it a try.

After lunch I went to one of the sessions presented by Teq, a company that was involved in sponsoring Edscape. This one was about digital storytelling, something I have been excited about since participating (to some extent) in ds106 early in the summer. Teq's session was not so much about the creative side as it was about the technical bit. Oddly enough that was really helpful for me. It clarified for me how to get started with all the pie-in-the-sky ideas I have.

I ended my day with Samantha Morra, another middle school teacher. Her session was about gaming, something I have little knowledge of. I have now downloaded Scratch onto my computer and am excited about the Scratch cards. I think my nine-year-old and I may have to bond over Scratch. I did walk away from this session feeling like I have a better foundation for gaming than I had thought. Gaming always makes me think of something big and serious but Samantha reminded me of all the games I do use with kids, including Turtle Art.

Every session and the keynote gave me things to think about and to try. I had great conversations with educators (most of them from the NJ, NY, CT area). Next year the conference is on October 19th. I don't know that I can do 500 miles round trip in one day again, but it may be worth looking into taking the train...

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Importance of Expectations

A study from 1964 was mentioned on NPR recently and caught my attention (in connection with a much more recent study). The half-century old study reminded me of the story educators often hear about a teacher who sees numbers beside her students' names and assumes they are their IQs. These IQs are quite high and, as a result, she works hard to challenge these students. Turns out the numbers were actually their locker numbers. But she doesn't learn that until the students have succeeded beyond everyone's expectations. (I believe this story is apocryphal but the message behind it seems pretty sound.)

So, this study from 1964 involved telling teachers that a test their students were taking predicted which students were about to make large intellectual gains. They were then given random names as students who had been identified by this test. Shockingly enough those students went on to make great gains.
As Rosenthal did more research, he found that expectations affect teachers' moment-to-moment interactions with the children they teach in a thousand almost invisible ways. Teachers give the students that they expect to succeed more time to answer questions, more specific feedback, and more approval: They consistently touch, nod, and smile at those kids more.
This did not surprise me at all (maybe because this study was done nearly 50 years ago?). I recognize how I respond, in small ways, differently to students based on what I expect from them. It is something I try hard to control.

The more recent study is being done at the Curry School at the University of Virginia. Researchers there have realized that past attempts to change this dynamic have involved trying to change teachers' beliefs.
But Pianta has a different idea of how to go about changing teachers' expectations. He says it's not effective to try to change their thoughts; the key is to train teachers in an entirely new set of behaviors.
I know I am actively trying to change my own thoughts and beliefs about students. Is it possible for me to do so in a way that would not be possible for an outsider? I am, also, trying to change my behavior whether or not I can change my beliefs. I think UVA has it right here, the behavior is the key. Possibly changing the behavior of the teachers will result in changing beliefs.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Bad Night, Huh

When checking my Yahoo email recently (mostly used as the email of choice when ordering online and such) I noticed this headline: Obama Vows 'Determined' Performance at Next Debate. For reasons that I cannot explain, I clicked on it.

The article mostly focuses on Obama's comments during an interview with Diane Sawyer. The critical quote from him, to me at least, was this one:
Governor Romney had a good night. I had a bad night. It's not the first time.
He continues (at least in the article) with:
This was one event. We've got four weeks to go.
In this context I completely agree. I don't think one debate makes or breaks a presidential campaign. There are too many other factors, too many other chances to shine or falter.

Sadly that's not true for our public school students. They take that standardized test and if it's a bad day that can carry some powerful implications. A string of bad days can mean placement in remedial courses or not graduating.

If Obama is bad at debating (which I don't think is true based on past experiences, but roll with me here...) he has other ways of showing the voters why he should be reelected. He gives public speeches, has campaign commercials, and more. Students don't have this option. If they are bad at standardized testing, and some students must be, they don't have any other options. They just have bad day after bad day after bad day.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Get Thee to a Writing Project!

Those are some of my favorite people in the entire world. That's the group of Teacher Consultants from the Northern Virginia Writing Project's Invitational Summer Institute, 2012. 

If you have a National Writing Project site in your area (find out here) and have not checked it out yet, do so! While you may not be able to commit to a summer institute there are often workshops and conferences offered. Many sites also have workshops and things for students.

Looking at this picture makes me smile as it brings back so many wonderful memories from this summer. My writing group has met once since the summer institute ended and we have another meeting coming up. I have grown so much as a writer and a teacher thanks to the Northern Virginia Writing Project.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Learning Lower Case Letters

Lower case letters are introduced in kindergarten, but in first grade we work hard on learning to form them correctly and write them well. I try to dedicate a lot of time to this in the beginning of the year and to give as much guidance as possible so that students do not practice bad habits.

In past years I have noticed that one of the greatest challenges for my first graders is that some letters are small, some are tall, and some hang down. They tend to make all the lower case letters fit in the exact same space.

When I stopped to reflect on this I realized that upper case letters do work that way. My students are quite proficient at writing their upper case letters. I shouldn't be surprised that they assume that lower case letters work the same way.

This year we spent one lesson just looking at the lower case alphabet. I asked students what they noticed was the same about different letters. I tried to highlight what they noticed in different colors but they were noticing so many things! They noticed the little tail on the 'a' and the 'o'. They noticed the round, circular parts of 'a', 'b', 'd', 'g', 'o', 'p', and 'q'. They noticed the tall, straight lines on 'b', 'd', 'f'', 'h', 'k', 'l', and 't'. They noticed the long tails on 'g', 'j', 'p', 'q' and 'y'. It was a great way to start.

Each day as we learn and practice a new letter we inspect it closely. What does it have that is the same as other letters we have learned? What makes it different?

I don't know yet whether or not this will transfer into their independent writing. It's a lot to ask six-year-olds to think of great ideas for writing, stretch out their words to spell them, and form their letters correctly. But they certainly have internalized more about these lower case letters than any of my classes in the past.

This sort of thinking comes from the Patterns of Thinking. When I am thoughtful about my teaching and learning those patterns are so clear.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Seeing All the Trees in the Forest

Our fabulous counselor came by the other morning to ask for names of students for various small groups she will support. As I talked to her about my students and their needs I was struck by how different my focus is this year from years past.

That change in focus does not have to do with any change in me.

I have a truly delightful bunch of students this year. They are not all sit-on-the-carpet-silently and follow-every-direction-to-the-letter kind of kids but they are fabulous. They are interested in learning and being in school. They like each other and treat each other well the majority of the time. They are thoughtful and kind and happy. Just delightful.

I do not have anyone who has significant behavior problems. I have a few who are stubborn and willful. I have at least one who has trouble following directions and listening and sitting still and keeping hands to oneself. But nothing major.

This is my fifth year in first grade and it is the first time I can say that.

In years past conversations with our counselors focused on those children with significant issues. They were the ones in groups or meeting one-on-one with a counselor. In comparison the other kiddos seemed to be doing just fine.

This year I am free to think about those others. I can identify ones who would benefit from a group about school readiness. I can think of those who could use a friendship group. I can name little friends who need help advocating for themselves.

With significant behavior issues these smaller things got lost in the wash. Even if I recognized them, which I don't think I always did, I didn't have the time or energy to seriously address them.

That said, I still want those children with significant behavior issues in my classroom. They are young and benefit greatly from being with their peers and learning from them, both academically and about appropriate choices. In the future (which could be next week given the mobility at our school) I need to figure out how to not get so caught up in one or two students that I am not giving the others what they need and what they deserve.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Lazy Spammer

I have managed to get on a lot of spam lists over the years I have been blogging. Every once in a while I am grateful as I learn about something new or intriguing. Mostly, however, I just delete the email and move on.

This morning I received one that actually made me laugh:
I enjoyed your recent article on [RE: POST TOPIC] and was wondering if I could submit a guest post on your blog? Here are two suggested topics that I think your readers might find interesting.  Let me know what you think.
 Oddly enough I'm not interested in a guest post.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Not My Bandwagon

My school is completely on the common assessment bandwagon. My team spent half an hour this morning (not an immense amount of time, I know, but still...) creating a common assessment for our major first quarter math standards.

One teacher recommended three questions/activities to do one-on-one with students, in an interview format. I balked. Not because I disagreed. I completely agree. In fact, I've done two of those questions/activities with my students already. I balked because I'm not convinced that, as a common assessment for this purpose, it is worth the time involved.

This has been on the back of my mind all day. I, like many, many other teachers, do a lot of interview type of assessment. When I work with students I am asking them questions, listening as they explain how they worked through a problem, or simply observing their process. As I do so I am gaining a lot of assessment data. A lot.

But that's not common. I don't mean it's not something a lot of teachers do. It is. I mean it's not a standard assessment that all seven classroom teachers on my first grade team can do. It's not even standard for all seventeen kids in my classroom. It's constantly changing and adapting based on the student.

So, in addition to that constant assessment I now have to do a 'common assessment' with my team. We could use a really quick assessment but we want something that will actually give us meaningful information. That requires, typically, something that is a bit more time intensive.

We have to do a pre-assessment and a post-assessment each quarter. (We are allowed to do more. Isn't that generous?) A quarter is nine weeks long. A meaningful assessment in first grade very likely requires that I administer it individually or in small groups. That means it will take several days, possibly a week. So now I'm spending close to two of my nine weeks assessing my students in this formal manner. That's time I lose from small group or individual instruction.

I'm simply not convinced that this is worth the time we are investing in it.

And don't even get me started on common pacing.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Mail Can Be Exciting

My two daughters (ages 9 and 5) think getting the mail is a very exciting part of the day. For the record, my husband and I do not feel this way. When it is up to us we're lucky if we get the mail two or three times each week. Now when I get home I hand the keys to one of my girls (they take turns with this exciting task) and they carefully check our quiet cul-de-sac for traffic before walking across to get the mail.

Anyway, the point is that we are actually getting our mail every. single. day. As a result I opened the newest issue of Educational Leadership today rather than a week from now. So far I've only skimmed through it but, near the end of the issue, there is a section with small bits from readers titled What You Learned from a Challenging Student. To my great delight, the first bit is mine. You can read it here.

It should be noted that I've told this story before so it may seem familiar.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Paul Tough's How Children Succeed

A few years ago I read Whatever It Takes by Paul Tough. I was intrigued by Geoffrey Canada and wanted to learn more about his Harlem Children's Zone. I enjoyed the book and thought it was well written. So when I learned about Tough's new book, How Children Succeed, I knew I would read it.

I began reading it on vacation this summer and was fascinated. I was in New Mexico at my grandparent's home with my parents and my daughters. I read multiple passages aloud to anyone who would listen and talked at length with my mom (who was a nurse) about the medical studies he shares. The first two chapters, How to Fail (and How Not To) and How to Build Character were quite compelling. The third chapter, How to Think, is almost completely about one public school in New York City and its chess program. I found it mildly interesting but not nearly as much as Tough clearly did and it slowed my progress considerably (that and the end of my vacation and school starting). The final two chapters, How to Succeed and A Better Path were more interesting to me, but still paled in comparison with the first two.

One of the studies Tough references very early in the book, beginning on page nine, has haunted me for the past six weeks. It is the Adverse Childhood Experiences study. It was run by Kaiser Permanente in California beginning in 1995. Patients were asked to complete a questionnaire about their personal history in regards to adverse childhood experience, such as abuse neglect and various types of family dysfunction (ten total categories). This was requested when patients came in for a comprehensive physical exam. More than seventeen thousand questionnaires were returned, a rate of almost 70%. The individuals tended to be middle class, most were white and most had attended college.

They found that "the higher the ACE score, the worse the outcome on almost every measure from addictive behavior to chronic disease." (page 10) The statistics Tough states blew my mind.

The most astounding thing was that these adverse childhood experiences had a negative impact on health even for people who did not smoke, drink to excess, or were overweight. The new theory became that the cause of these health problems was the stress of these experiences. Essentially our bodies are not made to endure ongoing, constant stress and managing that stress day in and day out wears on our bodies.

This has barely scratched the surface of Tough's book, but it was the most compelling piece for me. Enough for me to continue on and do more research about the ACE study. For the record my ACE score is 0. You can find your own, if you are interested, here.

More to come I'm sure...

Learning, in so many ways

We've been working on making our first movie of the year. As a Title I school we have a Home-School Compact for Learning that was created by staff and parents. It details parents' responsibilities, staffs' responsibilities, and students' responsibilities. Each student gets a copy that they sign, their parent signs, and their teacher signs.

I don't think my first graders understand most of the ten things on their list of responsibilities so we make this movie each year. It takes us about two weeks but it helps them understand and it gives them experience with making a movie (experience we'll build on all year).

We start by reading each responsibility, a few per day, and talking about what that means and how it looks. Then we take pictures showing how it looks. Eventually we dump the pictures into MovieMaker and narrate them.

Some of their responsibilities are easier to understand than others. "Read at home everyday." is pretty clear. "Come to school everyday, on time, well-rested, and prepared to learn." requires a bit more discussion. "Obey all school and classroom rules." is another one that seems pretty obvious to me. When I asked them about it they seemed to get it. When asked how that looks, my favorite response was:
"you are not supposed to get a napkin and do spitballs."
True. Very true.

In case you are interested in their final product, here it is.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Driving & Teaching Conditions

I remember learning to drive. Keeping track of everything I needed to was immensely challenging and stressful. Watching my speed, the road ahead of me, the cars around me...much less actually listening to the radio or talking to passengers in the car (and this was way before cell phones!).

For months when I first got my learner's permit I would take the long way, or at least slightly longer way, to church. The normal route required a left turn at a curve in the road that made it hard to see oncoming traffic well. I decided it was easier to avoid that turn and take the longer way. Eventually my father got fed up and informed me that we were going the normal way to church and I just had to learn to make that turn. I did but it scared me. Too much going on and I couldn't see it all.

Thinking back to my first years of teaching it feels the same way. Keeping track of everything I needed to was immensely challenging and stressful. Classroom management, assessment, lesson plans, paperwork, communication with parents...much less really knowing my students and their needs. Too much going on and I couldn't see it all.

Like driving that all feels under control now. It still requires my attention and thoughtfulness, just as driving does, but I've synthesized it, brought it together, done it for years, and it feels pretty natural.

I worry about young teachers because I believe that they have too much to keep their eyes on. It's not just driving, it's driving in heavy traffic, in a rain storm, late at night, through a construction zone.

Not only do they have to do everything teachers have been doing for decades, but they have to create SMART goals (or if you are in my school district, SMARTR goals), have at least one hour long team meeting each week, create, administer, and analyze common assessments, and who knows what else.

It seems they need a shorter route for a bit as they adjust to all of this. They need to be able to avoid that scary turn until they have the experience and confidence to make it.

photo from kretyen on flikr