Monday, April 30, 2012

Too Targeted

My kids, both my daughter and my first graders, complain about P.E. This has surprised me for a while because I remember enjoying P.E. in elementary school and felt like it was typically a favorite activity. But it's been pretty consistently whined about for a few years now. The kids like the P.E. teachers but not P.E.

When I've dug a bit deeper with my daughter I've learned that what she hates are the push-ups and curl-ups at the beginning of P.E. class. Often she loves the rest of P.E. but all she can think about is that beginning. The same seems to be true for my students. They focus on this one small piece of P.E. class and forget about all the parts they enjoyed.

I asked one of our P.E. teachers about this phenomenon recently. She wasn't at all surprised to hear how the kids felt. She told me that at the end of the year the kids would all be tested on their push-ups and curl-ups (state requirement, I think). So they practice them at the beginning of each period to prepare them.

When I heard this I nodded my head and thought, "Well, that makes sense."

As I've thought more about it, I don't think it does.

Doing push-ups and curl-ups doesn't make a child healthy or fit. Those two exercises aren't the greatest ones ever created, ones that will work all the muscle groups or anything. They are simply the two exercises someone far removed from the kids has decided they need to be able to do.

It seems to me that this is what school has become, a focus on the specific content and skills required for a test rather than offering students opportunities to follow their interests or to develop themselves broadly. I just didn't realize it had hit P.E. as well.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Just a Little Poetry Joy

Today is Poem in Your Pocket Day. As I am not in my classroom at the moment I am relieved of the guilt I would be feeling about not doing anything with my students for today. Especially since another first grade teacher had her kids make darling little pockets out of felt to pin to their clothes and place a poem therein. I'll be stealing that idea for next year.

For the moment I've just been sharing the poetry joy with other teachers. I took my favorite Billy Collins poem and made copies which I have carried with me all day. (I don't have a pocket in my clothing today - a common problem for women and the reason I wear a lab coat when teaching - so I pinned a copy of this poem to the top of my skirt.) I have passed this poem on to anyone who wants a copy. Only one person chose not to take one. Others may have taken a copy because they didn't feel they could say no. However many have been excited by the idea. One person even emailed me a couple of other poems, ones he keeps in his memory pocket all the time. Awesome.

Here's the poem I've shared and carried with me today:

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What I Learned from Grapefruit

Last Christmas I felt like an adult. For years my grandparents have sent my parents a large box of grapefruit around Christmas. This past year I received my own box.

I was so excited (apparently late 30s is a great time to feel like an adult) I mentioned my box of grapefruit to my mom. She immediately offered to cut them up for me. In fact, she even offered to have my sister help; the sister who would be arriving soon from California. I graciously (I hope) declined. My theory was that if I was enough of a grown-up to receive my own box of grapefruit I was sure I was enough of a grown-up to cut them up myself.

With further thought I  began to suspect that my mom was a bit worried that I didn't have time to cut up the grapefruit. I believe she thinks I may be a bit overextended.

My sister (the one coming from California who was volunteered) agrees with mom that I'm a bit overextended. She's takes a pretty pragmatic view on it, however. She believes that I make my own choices and if I'm busy it's because I've chosen to be.

She's right. Both that I'm a bit overextended and that it is my own choice to be that way.

I did manage to cut up the grapefruit on my own and it was delicious. Maybe I truly am an adult.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Hate to Wait

I came to a conclusion tonight, which led to a decision. The conclusion: I'm not a patient person. The decision: I will try to be a patient person.

First, the conclusion. This isn't really a shock to me. I've never considered myself patient. It's been an issue all my life. I was born three weeks early. I don't like to wait. That said, I teach first graders. People assume you must have a lot of patience to do that. I do think I'm more patient in that setting than many people would be. But that doesn't make me patient by any means.

So, the decision. I have another week and a half out of my classroom. My group of kids this year is challenging and a number of them are struggling with the transition to another teacher for this period. From my vantage point the intern is working exceptionally hard to use an appropriate tone and volume and language but some students are not responding. I've felt an urge to take a really hard line and set them straight.

I'm rethinking it as I watch other teachers. Teachers who are patient. Teachers who are what I want to be when it comes to interacting with their young students and building community. When I return to my classroom I may bite countless holes in my tongue but I'm going to respond with patience. I am going to make a concerted effort to view my students as their parents view them, as I view my daughters.

Most importantly, I'm going to make this my most significant focus. I can only do so much well at any given time and I'm going to focus on building habits of patience and gentleness. If that means my instruction is not as strong as it could be I'm going to accept that as a worthwhile trade off.

Image from Brett Jordan's flickr

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Sad Disappointment of Portfolios

While I am out of my classroom for a few weeks I've been tapped to help with the collection of evidence for our state alternative assessment. We have the option to create portfolios for students with IEPs or who are LEP (limited English proficient).

In theory I love this. I would much prefer to create portfolios to show my students' progress than to have them take multiple choice, standardized tests. The work they are doing on a daily basis throughout the year is more meaningful, in my eyes, than the snapshot a test provides.

That said, what we are doing isn't working that way, unfortunately. One of the problems is with the way the portfolios have been designed by the state. We have to document every piece of every standard in the portfolio. That's not true of a standardized test. Fifty questions can not encompass every bit of every standard for a given grade level. For example, one standard is about students finding information and includes using encyclopedias, thesauri, dictionaries, glossaries, and online resources. A standardized test might address two of those five but a portfolio must show evidence of all five.

The second issue, while frustrating to me, is one I do understand. We end up collecting most of this evidence in inauthentic ways. I'm pulling students out of class to complete a worksheet with me, a teacher they don't know. I am attempting to complete as much of this work using books they are reading at the moment and writing they are doing. But their writing may not currently include examples of contractions or abbreviations. In which case I'm giving them a worksheet.

We can use interviews as evidence. In an ideal world we'd document these conversations during guided reading groups, reading conferences, and writing conferences. That would require every teacher working with these students to know these standards better than they know themselves. That is a lot to ask, especially for teachers in their first couple of years teaching. (We do have a lot of this type of evidence in our portfolios.)

Monday, April 16, 2012

More on Failure

Ever since the opening panel at Educon 2.4 back in January I've been thinking a lot about failure. Some of that thinking is contained in my newest blog post for

I appreciate the folks at because they help me take my ideas and make them coherent. I also love seeing which quotes they pull out:

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Tomorrow Will Be Here Soon

Today was not a fabulous day. There are a host of reasons for that - none of them major. It got me thinking about something Eric Jensen said at ASCD. Saturday morning there was a Coffee and Conversations with ASCD Authors session. I spent a bit of time at Jensen's table as I have been interested in his work on brain-based learning for some time and his newest book is about students living in poverty.

He was interesting to hear as he responded to folks' questions. The thing that stuck with me, or at least that came back to me today, was a bit off his typical topic. He said, "You're only as happy as your most miserable child." He was speaking about parents and I'm feeling it that way today.

I do have to wonder how much it applies to us as teachers. Many teachers, I believe, focus on the difficulties, the things that didn't work, in any given day and struggle to see all the achievements and successes. We do so because we want to improve and make things even better the next lesson, the next day, or the next year. Are we only as successful (in our minds) as our least successful student? And if so, is that a good thing or something we should reevaluate?

Sunday, April 08, 2012

More on Preflection and Pausing

The other night my husband and I had a long conversation about parenting, specifically about reacting in anger (something I do with my daughters much more often than I would like to admit). My big takeway from our discussion was to continue to think about why we react in anger (we being all adults) and what we hope to gain from it.

The more I think about it the more I believe that when we react in anger people don't hear us. I think that is true whether we are talking to children or to adults. Think about it, when someone is yelling at you, are you truly able to hear what they are saying or do you just respond to the emotions involved?

There may be short term reasons for reacting in anger, such as if a child is doing something dangerous and needs to be stopped quickly. However, if we are hoping for long term learning and changes in behavior or thinking then we are more likely to be successful if we respond more gently and thoughtfully.

The challenge, for me at least, is to remember this and employ the preflection in which I so strongly believe. Responding in anger when I am frustrated is natural. Pausing, thinking, and then responding is harder, but the only way I can focus on the long term.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Our Books in Our Library

This is one section of our classroom library. The books across the top shelf are in baskets by the author. There is a basket for Dr. Seuss, one for Mo Willems, one for Kevin Henkes, and one for Laura Numeroff. The shelves below have baskets for funny books, alphabet books, counting books, family books, friend books, and more. The last basket on the top row, next to Kevin Henkes' basket, is the one pictured here. These are books by us, we are the authors.
Early in the year the books going into this basket are the ones we write together. I take pictures of our interactive writings, the big books we create, and give each student a copy and put a copy in our classroom library.

 As the year moves on, we begin adding books the kids have written. They get placed in our classroom library after conferencing with a teacher and sharing their book (or other writing) using our document camera. I have students who are begging for conferences and the chance to share now in order to put another book in our classroom library. Some of these are kids who didn't have the stamina to write for more than a few minutes earlier in the year. They are incredibly motivated by the idea of having their book in our library near books by Mo Willems and Laura Numeroff.

I do have one fabulous little friend who insists that I make a copy of his books after he shares so that I can put one in our library and he can keep one to share at home. I've never had a student request that before and I love it.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Ten Years Can Be A Long Time

I spent some time this evening at a nearby library watching videos of myself teaching and taking notes for my National Board Certification renewal. At one point it struck me how different this process is from my initial certification ten years ago.

I recorded these lessons using a flip video camera. It's not fabulous cinematography but it's clear and understandable. It's also simple. Ten years ago I recorded on a camcorder. Again, not fabulous cinematography but clear and understandable. A lot more expensive however.

This evening I sat at the library, headphones on, watching myself teach and taking notes in Evernote on my iPad. I went to the library because I needed a space away from home (and my darling daughters) to focus and get some serious work done. Ten years ago that would have been impossible. I couldn't have watched my VHS tapes at the library. (Of course, ten years ago I didn't have my darling daughters so working at home was more feasible.)

One take-away from this is that teachers should be recording themselves teaching and watch it, reflect, learn, and grow. The hard part of that now is the emotional piece, not the mechanics.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Meaningful Professional Development

As I am in the midst of my National Board Certification renewal (how has it been 10 years already?!?) and fairly involved in the Northern Virginia Writing Project I've been thinking quite a bit about what made those two events (for lack of a better word) so powerful in my personal, professional development.

Many people I've spoken to about the National Writing Project, and all of its local entities, have mentioned how much more meaningful it was than their master's degree program. The same is often true in discussions about National Boards. I did a master's degree through the Curry School at the University of Virginia. It was a fabulous program, greatly enjoyed, and an amazing learning experience.

That said, it pales in comparison with the National Board process or the National Writing Project. My master's program offered me an amazing amount of flexibility. In spite of that it mostly involved someone else telling me what to learn and how to do so. I believe there are purposes to that and there were wonderful things I gained from it. In the long run however, I don't gain as much from those experiences as I do ones that are more driven by my own needs and interests.

The National Boards and the National Writing Project offer me that opportunity. I am grateful for it.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Pretty Obvious

A while back someone linked to this information about a study out of UVA. I've had it open in a tab ever since. Every once in a while I would look at it and it's been a good reminder to me.

The basic gist of the study is that students are more engaged when they have some autonomy. I know at first glance that is not shocking and is the sort of thing any teacher of any grade level could tell you. It certainly came as no surprise to me.

In spite of that fact, I'm grateful for the study. Autonomy is sadly lacking in many classrooms (including mine more often than I would like to admit) so having the evidence from this study is important. I am a strong believer in offering students choice (including in their spaces) and I appreciate anything that backs me up when trying to convince others.