Saturday, March 31, 2012

I Want To Be Mr. Slinger

Lilly and her boots
My daughter's boots

My five-year-old daughter wears a pair of red cowboy boots that remind me of Lilly's. They aren't exactly the same, as my daughter is quick to point out to me, but quite similar. At the library today we checked out Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse so that I could introduce her to a character with the same fashion sense.

I haven't read the book in a while. Reading it to her this afternoon I was so impressed with Mr. Slinger. Why he struck me so today I am not sure. Possibly when I read the book previously I was a more patient, understanding teacher than I am at the moment.

In case you haven't read the book, the basic story is that Lilly brings her new purse, sunglasses, and quarters to school and ends up distracting everyone with them. Mr. Slinger, very gently, takes them away until the end of the day. Lilly is furious. At the end of the day Mr. Slinger returns her things to her with a sweet note and bag of snacks. He even encourages her to bring them back to school, as long as they aren't distracting.

Mr. Slinger recognizes Lilly's genuine excitement about her new things. He tries to help her hold off until the appropriate time to share them, but when she can't he gently takes them with the promise of keeping them safe until the end of the day. Then he manages to return them with encouragement to try again tomorrow, both in his spoken words and in his note.

I am not that teacher. At least not right now. I believe I am having trouble seeing my students as young kids with all the natural and wonderful behaviors that includes. I'm taking Mr. Slinger as my model for the rest of this year. I hope I can make his actions a part of me. My students deserve that.

Images of Lilly from Kevin Henkes' lovely site.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Fresh Eyes on the Job

There are so many things flying around in my head, pushing and shoving, ready for me to write about them (including Language & Learning and ASCD12) but this made it to the front.

I am temporarily out of my classroom at the moment. An intern has taken over and is in control. Each day I go back in for a bit to teach a guided reading group but mostly I am elsewhere.

Tuesday was the first day I went in to work with my little group. These three boys have made minimal progress in reading this year and I often find our meetings painful. That wasn't true on Tuesday. I noticed all the things they are doing well as readers and celebrated with them. I was patient and thoughtful in my instruction and guidance. I had fun with them.

I wondered later what the difference was. It certainly wasn't that I was well rested after three days of jam-packing in two conferences. I was exhausted. I think the difference was that I didn't have to be 'on' all morning. Good teaching requires the teacher to be fully engaged and aware at all times. Not having to do that for the hour and a half before our guided reading group meant I was fresh and ready for them.

I felt the same way this morning. To renew my National Board Certification (should those all be capitalized or am I overdoing this?) I need to teach in an upper grade. I taught a math lesson on polygons to a fifth grade class and recorded it.

After watching the recording I may feel differently, but right now I would say I had a blast. Again, I think being able to really focus on this and not having to be in charge of everything else made it more relaxing, more fun, and pretty darn good instruction.

It is no surprise to me that teaching is hard and exhausting. I know that. But when you do it everyday it is just what you do, you don't tend to think a lot about it. Having the opportunity to do the teaching, but only a small piece of it, has proven to me the difficulty of the job. It also has me wondering how to find this fresh attitude, patience, and joy with the kids when I am back carrying the full load.

I also have to give this fifth grade teacher a ton of credit. She has created a community that is amazing with these kids. They are polite, engaged, excited, and able to really talk deeply with one other about their thinking. 

On a side note, years ago when I played the harp on a cruise ship, I knew that I had to be 'on' anytime I was in public areas. Everyone knew me as "Harpist Jennifer" because my picture was outside the main showroom. The difference then was that when I needed a break and didn't want to have to be in that mode I could just walk through a door into crew areas. There are not a lot of opportunities, time or space for crew areas in teaching.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Continuing to Reflect

Reflection is something I think about a lot. In fact, you might say I reflect on the topic often. Or not, if that's too painful for you.

Going through the National Board process ten years ago was where (I think) I really started doing serious, critical reflection. Working with preservice teachers for the past twelve years has strengthened the habit.

This morning, along with Lois Groth, a professor at George Mason University with whom our school works with our preservice teachers, I presented about reflection at ASCD's national conference. Lois has done a ton of fabulous research and I've tagged along, reading what she suggested. We surveyed teachers, preservice teachers, and teachers working with preservice teachers. Working through all those surveys was fascinating to me.

We're still reflecting on this, and likely will be for quite some time. Our presentation and notes are posted here in case you are interested. If you have thoughts, questions, ideas, really anything to share about this, we'd love to hear it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Long Distance Connections

I can't believe I didn't take any pictures of our fabulous learning experience today. Ahead of time I thought about doing so but in the midst of it I was too involved in the event to remember.

Dean Shareski partners up the preservice teachers he teaches with teachers around the world (mostly in Canada and the US, I think). I did this once before but that time I didn't have a clear plan in mind and I don't think it was a strong an experience for those preservice teachers as it could have been. This time I had a plan and the two preservice teachers are awesome.

We've talked over the past several weeks about some ideas that would fit our science and social studies lessons. In science first graders learn about the seasons and how during different seasons we have different weather and how animals and plants adapt to the seasons. I thought it would be interesting to see how the climate in Regina, Saskatchewan results in different weather from ours during each season and different animals and plants. In social studies we're studying maps so talking with folks elsewhere is a great chance for us to look at different places on maps.

Kaitlin and Courtney (the two fabulous preservice teachers) created an awesome video about winter in Saskatchewan. My students, many of whom have lived only in Virginia or in countries south of the U.S. were fascinated by the winter sports and the various animals, especially buffalo and moose. We'll be watching the video multiple times, I can tell.

Today Kaitlin joined us via Skype and talked with the kids about spring. She shared that she can tell that spring is coming because the snow is melting right now. We can tell that spring is coming because we can wear shorts and short-sleeved shirts right now! Then she shared a wonderful story book about spring with the kids and engaged them in conversation about it. They were enthralled. At the end she suggested we draw pictures of what we like to do in the spring. We're going to do that tomorrow in the computer lab using Pixie and put them into a VoiceThread in order to continue the conversation with Kaitlin and Courtney.

We're also going to use Google Earth and Google Maps to look at where we live and where Kaitlin and Courtney live. Flying from our home to theirs in Google Earth will be awesome and following the path in Google Maps will be quite interesting.

If Kaitlin and Courtney are getting half as much out of this as my students are then it is well worth their time. We are having a blast and making connections left and right (as well as north and west)!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Math Superhero

Recently my students made movies of themselves telling number stories (word problems). We're working on understanding what it actually means to work a number sentence, such as 3 + 5 = 8. Most of them can figure out the answer to such questions but they don't all truly understand that those numbers mean something.

We made one movie of all our little movies and shared it on our class blog.They had a great time making the movies and I had a great time watching them, both as they created them and later.

The short video above is one of the movies made by my little friend, "Nate." I love having him in my class and he always makes me smile. After he made this video, he struck this pose.

Our Math Superhero

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Geeky Family

Today my family indulged in some serious geekiness. Parson Weems (biographer of George Washington and originator of the cherry tree story) owned a house not far from where we live. It is currently on the market. Actually, it will be auctioned online in a few weeks. Of course, we can't possibly afford it but we jumped at the chance to visit during an open house.

 Our oldest daughter (a 3rd grader) has been working on a report about Martha Washington so she was quite excited to visit a home at which George and Martha had stayed. (We haven't taken her to Mount Vernon yet. Apparently we aren't that competent of parents.)

My husband has posted some great shots he took today as well as his thoughts (he's a college history professor).

The home is really gorgeous and full of beautiful touches (scalloped shelves, stonework, sloping ceilings). I'm sure it would be a major hassle to take care of such a house but it was fun to walk through and imagine living there.

They will be auctioning many of the items in the house separately and I hope to watch that closely. Maybe I can snag a bedwarmer or pictures of George and Martha, just a little piece of history for my home.

I knew very little about Parson Weems before today's trip to his home. Honestly, I had always pooh-poohed him as one who lied in his biographies of Washington and set up myths that have withstood centuries. I found him irritating. After today's venture back in time I'm more forgiving of him. He seems more human and less of a caricature. It's amazing how a personal connection can change one's feelings so much.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Kid's Best Advocate

I strongly believe that one of my most important jobs as a teacher, especially of first graders, is that of advocate. Whether I am talking with other teachers, various school committees, parents, or anyone else, I think that I must be a powerful advocate for what I believe is best for my students.

No matter how hard I work for my kids, I can not meet every single need of every one of them. No teacher can do that for every child in their classroom. It doesn't matter how small the class size is. And some parents don't know how to advocate for their children. There has to be someone who can be there to advocate for each child. I believe this as a teacher and, even more, as a parent.

The best advocate for a child is that child. One of the most important things we can do for our students is to help them become responsible for their own learning and help them learn to advocate for themselves.

Building responsibility for their own learning is not a stretch as a role a teacher should play. Helping them learn to advocate for themselves is not as obvious. I firmly believe they are equally important, and as important as any piece of content I will teach them.

How we help them with both of these ideas is less certain for me. I think there are a lot of things I do to help my first graders become more responsible for their own learning. Helping them recognize what they need and how to get it is more of a challenge. It's something I'll be thinking about a lot more.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Can't Take Things Back

When the weather seems even remotely chilly I require my students to take their coats outside with them. I don't require them to actually wear the coats, but I require that they have them. My reasoning is that if they have their coat and don't want to wear it, that is possible. If they don't have their coat but they do want to wear it, they are out of luck.

I feel the same way about the guidance I give them.I work hard to ask questions and prompt in ways that are vague and open ended. If my question or prompt goes too far I've lost the chance to see what they can do on their own.

Our calendar this month has a growing pattern, something that is a challenge for many first graders. In asking them about the pattern, I want to ask simply, "What do you notice?" I don't want to prompt more than that, at least not at first. If I say, "What do you notice about the bears?" or "What do you notice about their hats?" then I focus their thinking. In doing so I take away the opportunity for them to get to the idea on their own. In addition, I may miss some brilliant thoughts they have that never even occurred to me. If they have no idea about the growing pattern after a bit, I can ask the more focused questions then.

I can always give them more support as we work together but I can never take back the information I have handed them. If I give them the information first they have no possibility of getting their own their own.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Pre-School Experiences Matter

At VCTM's (Virginia Council of Teachers of Mathematics) annual conference I had a wonderful dinner and conversation with several pre-service teachers from George Mason University. One mentioned an authority figure talking about first graders blogging independently. These pre-service teachers, all having some experience with the primary grades, were clearly skeptical.

They knew that my students blog with me, but not independently. With a bit of questioning about the experience this authority figure was sharing, it became clear that we were talking about a very different population of students.

These pre-service teachers are all in Title I schools. The independently blogging first graders are in a more middle class school. The school in question has fewer than a quarter of their students receiving free or reduced price lunches. My school is the opposite. We have three quarters of our students receiving free or reduced price lunches.

I am not suggesting that my students are not as smart as their middle class peers. In fact, most of my students speak multiple languages, something most of their middle class peers don't do. I simply believe that socioeconomic status plays a role in what students are prepared to do, especially independently.

First of all, many of the students at my school arrive there with limited literacy experiences. My younger daughter will begin kindergarten in the fall. She has a wide range of literacy experiences because we are lucky enough to have the financial means to have many books in our home, the time for frequent visits to the library, she has seen her parents and other adults reading often, she has been read to on a daily basis, and her babysitter offers her all these things and more as well. As a result, she will begin school in a few months with a list of favorite authors and books and with ideas for stories she is ready to write. For a whole host of reasons, most of the students in our school do not have that preparation.

Another issue is the lack of technology experiences. Many of our students do not have ready access to computers and the internet. Again, my younger daughter has been using computers, including an XO One Laptop per Child of her own, since she was very young. She will walk into kindergarten very comfortable with using a desktop or laptop computer. I spend time teaching my students how to use a web browser (opening, closing, using tabs) and such.

None of this means that my students could not blog independently. They certainly could. It means that I would have to spend a lot of time teaching them skills specific to doing so. I have chosen to spend my precious time with them in ways that seem more worthwhile. In a cost-benefit analysis independent blogging isn't worth the time we would have to invest.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

VCTM in Roanoke

Anyone going to VCTM in Roanoke, Virginia this weekend? I'm headed down tomorrow evening for two days full of math fun and learning.

I'm co-presenting with one of our pre-service teachers on Friday at 11:15 about using technology to support math learning in the early grades. Then, after lunch, at 1:30 I'm presenting on the patterns of thinking and their importance in math.

I'm not sure I'll know anyone at this conference, aside from all our pre-service teachers, so if you are there, let me know!

Sunday, March 04, 2012


I've created this word* to explain something I do that is critically important to me as a teacher (and as a parent, for that matter). Reflection is something I have written about recently as it is the topic of an upcoming conference presentation. However, to my mind reflection is something that is done after the fact. I reflect on lessons taught, interactions with students, responses to my daughters, and choices I make throughout the day. Reflection is immensely important and helps me continually grow as a teacher.

Preflection is something done before the event. It goes along with the idea of hesitation, about which I've also recently written. (Either I'm doing some serious thinking, all related or I'm in a rut.) Similar to reflecting, thinking through what I did or what happened and what it meant, preflection is reflecting ahead of making the choice.

It's preflection that allows me to think through the possible responses I might give to a student and why certain ones might be better than others. Reflecting before I act, preflecting, helps me make smarter, more thoughtful choices.

I think, upon reflection, that it took me many years to develop the reflective nature I have now as a teacher and parent. Without that, I don't think preflection would be a tool I can use. Reflecting, both after and before, is something that is very conscious for me now. That skill (or whatever it should be called) is one I don't think I could live without now.

*Apparently this word is already out there meaning this and some other things, but I'm choosing to ignore that and continue to believe that I created it.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

A Couple of Random Shots

Another first grade teacher received this card on Valentine's Day. Just for some background, she is not married. She received this card from one of her students. He was quite excited to give it to her and bugged her all day about opening the card, but as it was both Valentine's Day and the 100th Day of School, she was a bit busy and did not manage to do so until after school. I'm sure it will be a card she cherishes for many years.

In related news, another teacher received a small heart box with chocolate. It was one of those boxes that holds three pieces of chocolate. This one held one piece of chocolate, with a bite taken out. The other two spots where chocolate should have been held three little jelly beans each.

Just for the record, neither the card nor the gift are terribly surprising at our school.
This random assortment of stuff came out of my pocket after recess one day. Every Wednesday we have recess not on the playground but out on the blacktop and field behind our hallway. (This is because we are in P.E. during our regular recess time and the playground is full of fourth graders by the time we're free again.) On this recent Wednesday a student came running over to me with the dry erase marker. He had found it out on the field. I put it in my pocket figuring it was a handy little find. Not three minutes later a child ran over with the book of matches. Given that there were still fresh matches in it I added it to my pocket rather than simply send the student to the trash can with it.

At that point I was kind of hoping for one more amusing find because three things is so much funnier than two. However, as we are usually only out there for about 15 minutes and it's a pretty empty field, I didn't hold out much hope. Imagine my surprise when another child showed up with the can of coke, unopened no less. I took that as the sign to head back into the classroom because it could only go downhill from there (either to terribly dull litter being brought to me or to something truly dangerous - either way I was all for avoiding such an occurrence).