Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Ups and Downs

Thanks to the inspiration of my good friend (and constant inspiration) I have been posting positive learning moments on Facebook recently. She started doing so to counter the feelings all of the standardized testing was causing (she teaches third grade). I loved the idea and started doing so as well. It helps me to start my day thinking of these positive events.

One day last week I wrote this:
Fun learning moment for today: I headed out walking around our school this morning looking for objects which my students might wonder about and ran into a former student. She's now a fourth grader and has a rough time at home. She walked with me looking for objects and had a great eye for ideas and thought about what my first graders would find most interesting. I wanted pinecones and she pointed out the right kind of trees (something I didn't know). She was so thoughtful, it started my day off right!
That was a great up for my day.

The next morning I had to run back out to my car for something I had forgotten. As I walked towards my car I noticed the same girl sitting on the same bench in front of the school. She does so most days. I think she is just looking for a quiet moment to herself. (When it's cold or rainy our principal will open her office window and call to this little one to come keep her company.)

As I watched the girl's mother pulled up, got out of the car, and went over to yell at her daughter. I couldn't hear the words but I could hear the tone. When the girl stood up she smacked her on the bottom, pointed to the car, and kept yelling until her daughter was inside the car. Then she got in and drove away.

As she pulled out of our parking lot she passed our principal walking in and they waved at one another. I walked over and shared what I had seen. My principal was quite surprised, given that the mother had just smiled and waved.

That was a serious down for the day.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Odd Connections - Historical and Technological

Back in March I wrote about how geeky my family is, after we visited Parson Weems' house. For teachinghistory.org I thought more about what it means as a teacher to visit historical location such as this one.

The best part of this story is that I sent off the post along with a few pictures I had taken during our visit. The wonderful folks at teachinghistory.org did a bit of searching for better pictures of Parson Weems' house. They found some fabulous ones on flickr and contacted the photographer. As it turns out, those pictures were taken by my husband. He was quite amused to receive an email explaining who they were and why they wanted the pictures. Fortunately, he gave permission.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

More About Thinking

Thinking about thinking has been a mild passion of mine for the past couple of years. It began when I had the opportunity to learn about Derek Cabrera's work with the Patterns of Thinking. I've written about it before and continue to think about it in planning and teaching.

One of the things Derek often talks about is the need to focus on the content we are teaching AND the way students are thinking about that content. It seems he is not alone in this sentiment:

Helping my students learn about their own thinking and reflect on it is one of my greatest goals as a teacher. Helping them think better, whether that means becoming a more critical consumer of information, asking questions as they observe the world, defending their own ideas, or trying different perspectives, is the greatest gift I can give them.

I came across this through Dot Physics, a blog written by physics professor Rhett Alain. I read (or at least skim) every post because of his fascination with the world around him, his willingness to ask any question and try to figure out the answer, and his fabulous writing. The physics goes way over my head.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Retention Pains

One of the pluses of teaching in the upper grades, as I did for ten years, is that retention is not an issue you face. The only time I ever considered retaining a student was a sweet boy who had not had glasses for many years and, we realized in fifth grade, had hearing issues so he had not been able to access most of his schooling. We didn't end up retaining him but did require summer school. (Not a perfect solution but retention would not have been either.)

As a first grade teacher the possibility of retention is something I face more often. This year, however, was the first time I've seriously considered it for a student. He is young, a June birthday, and struggling academically. He is also very mature for his age, a factor that ultimately made me argue against retention and he will be going on to second grade. I hope that is the right decision for him.

At the end of that day, my brilliant colleague wrote about our retention committee. Her thoughts are, as always, well worth reading but this question struck me hard:
Would it give a student confidence and build them up or would it send the message that her hard work was being rewarded by being held back?
 A couple of days later I read a piece by Diane Ravitch on this same topic. Her post is titled, Is School Retention Child Abuse? so you can see her thoughts. Again it is worth reading. She writes about the school psychologists' perspective on retention and it isn't pretty.

My colleague's question and Ravitch's thoughts are driving my stand on retention. I have been against it (not across the board but in general) for years and now I feel more strongly.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Hoping for Success

Brilliant coworkers make my job and life wonderful. Due to testing (not so wonderful) our library will be closed for more than a week. Our amazing librarian, however, will still be teaching. I snagged as much of her time as I could without shame and we met this afternoon to plan.

I've been concerned about how to help my students continue actively learning throughout the summer. I went to our librarian wanting help with this and offering only the idea that I wanted to build off of the book A Place for Wonder. Fortunately our librarian is brilliant and we planned two weeks worth of lessons with an outline for two more.

My students have used composition books as their Wonder Notebooks all year. I decided it would be great to give each student a brand new Wonder Notebook for the summer. In order to make that meaningful we're starting with practicing what we do when we wonder something. We want students to have a plan of action when they begin to wonder during the summer. Then we'll work on how to find things to wonder about throughout the summer (outside, inside, from tv or video games). We want them to be completely independent with noticing their wonders and thinking about them consciously.

I don't feel a need for my students to be practicing flashcards or answering comprehension questions or any other typical school activity during the summer. I just want to know that they are pushing themselves as thinkers and learners. Reading John T. Spencer's recent post hit home on my thinking about this. Many of my students won't be traveling, visiting museums or libraries, playing at parks, or any of the other enriching activities some kids do. I hope they will have some wonderful time with their families, relaxing together, talking, laughing, and just being a family. I also hope they will actively learn and I want to set them up for success in that area.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


Teaching elementary school means I teach all subject areas. I'm no expert in them although I do try to keep learning.

Science is the area in which I feel the weakest. Reading Doyle helps me with that at least a bit. He's also recommended books that have helped me grow in my understanding.

While I remember very little about science from my courses in high school and my one year in college, I have read Richard Feynman's books over and over again since then. My father owned them and, at some point, I bought my own copies.

I love his comment at the beginning here about guessing (and not laughing because it's true). It took me back to an idea Doyle mentions often, that kids need to observe. We tend to set up science experiments so that they illustrate specific things. Why don't we just let kids observe, wonder, and guess about the world around them? They naturally want to do so.

I think one reason is that doing so would require we know a lot about science - or are willing to say we don't know and learn together.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Toothpicks and Marshmallows

For the last hour of the day on Friday we played with toothpicks and marshmallows. It was a blast and just what we ALL needed.

It was tied into math. We've been studying rectangles, squares, triangles, and circles for the past couple of weeks. I'm really proud of the thinking these kids have done around these shapes.

They figured out that when using these materials the marshmallows were the corners and the toothpicks were the sides. Each of them made a square, a rectangle, and a triangle. And they did it quick!

I offered them a challenge: make one of those shapes that looks different from the ones everyone else has made. They figured out some great ones.

My favorite moment was when one student said, "Ms. Orr, I don't want to do your challenge. I just want to have fun." Then spent the next ten minutes calling across the room, "Ms. Orr! I think I solved your challenge!"

A lot of kids made 3-D shapes as well. This little friend wanted to make a cylinder. I told him I couldn't wait to see how he did it (thinking it was impossible). When he showed me the toothpick filled with marshmallows I was astounded. Brilliant.

Help Wanted - Summer Learning

We're at that point in the year when everything goes crazy. Big kids are taking SOLs (state standardized tests) and little ones are doing DRAs (one-on-one reading assessment) and MRAs (math assessment) and who knows what other acronyms. Our routines are all thrown off.

We haven't had guided reading groups in three weeks. Next week we could get back to that again. I don't want to go back to what we've been doing all year. We've done it. It's been good but they need something different.

I want to use this last month to set my students up for reading success throughout the summer. I want my lessons to prepare them to continue growing outside of school.

I just don't know how to do that.

Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Thursday, May 17, 2012


This is a rant. I intend to write some thoughts on ways we could actually improve the situation but for the moment I just need to get this off my chest.

Last night my oldest, a third grader, (who does have issues with anxiety) had quite a melt down about today's SOL* test. This was her first SOL test.

She seemed really tired and I didn't make the connection until she finally said, "Mommy, I think I'm so upset because I'm worried about the SOL test tomorrow." Head slap.

I asked her what she was worried about and she said something about it impacting her grades. This pained me both because it's not true and because I've worked really hard for four years now trying to convince her that her grades don't matter. Clearly I have not been successful. I quickly reassured her that an SOL test has nothing to do with her grades. I also pointed out that this test was a reading test, something she does for hours each day exceptionally well.

She followed that up with, "But mommy, Barack Obama sees this!"**

I lost it then and, probably too strongly, asked who told her that. A teacher did. Again, I reassured her that Barack Obama certainly doesn't see her tests. No one outside of her school sees them. I also told her that if she got every question wrong that would be just fine. (I'm sure not everyone agrees with me here but I firmly believe this.)

At that moment I was so angry that any teacher would say this to third graders. However, when I calmed down my anger shifted. I recognize that teachers feel immense pressure about these tests and they want the kids to take them seriously. Now I'm immensely pissed that we are functioning in an environment in which teachers and students have to cope with so much stress.

A friend (and third grade teacher) responded to my frustration in words that say exactly how I feel.

It feels like abuse, of students and teachers. It is just wrong.

*The SOLs are the Standards of Learning, our state mandated standardized tests. I'm sure that acronym doesn't mean anything.

**I do recognize that my source is an eight-year-old. It is possible that this was misunderstood. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Crankiest Teacher

I rarely feel I'm a shoo in for an award, but Crankiest Teacher of the Year is mine by a long shot. 

It's not the kids. It's totally me. It seems like recognizing that is a first step. That's possible. If so, I am completely unable to get past that first step.

The worst part is that this is a vicious cycle. I'm cranky with the students when they don't deserve it (I'm not sure first graders ever deserve it) so the kids act up in response which results in me getting crankier.

I've got lots of excuses but not one that makes my behavior okay. 

I think I might need a behavior modification plan for myself. Something that tracks my crankiness and rewards me for doing what's right. Maybe one of my fabulous colleagues will help me design and implement something. At this point it seems clear that I can't shake this off on my own.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Field Trip Movie

We finally did it! We made a movie using what we learned on and about our field trip. Our movie talks about the four men whose monuments and memorials we saw. The first three, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Luther King, Jr. are in the order in which we visited their memorials. George Washington was added to our movie because the students took a lot of great pictures of the Washington Monument, although we didn't get to visit it.

Every picture in this movie was taken by a first grader. They organized all the pictures so that they made sense and matched up to the order of our trip. They also planned the narration (with a bit of support).

The best moment in the process was in our discussion of FDR. He is not someone students study in first grade typically and his contributions are a bit challenging for them to understand. When planning the narration, one student suggested, "He helped other Americans because they didn't have food." I pushed a bit and asked why they didn't have food. We had talked about people not having jobs so I was hoping we could get to that.

The girl looked at me a bit blankly and then said, "Because food hadn't been invented yet."

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Another Nerdy Book Club Guest Post

I wrote another guest post for the Nerdy Book Club blog. It went live Friday and life has been so crazy for the past couple of days that I completely forgot about it.

This post is about the joy of sharing books with my daughters and the various ways we do so.

When I was pregnant with our oldest, my brother-in-law asked us, "What will you do if the kid isn't a reader?" My husband and I just looked at him, completely perplexed. The idea was so foreign to us.

So far it hasn't been an issue. Our oldest devours books and rereads them again and again. The youngest, who will start kindergarten in the fall, is beginning to read but would much prefer listening to one of us read to her. She and her sister play many games involving the characters of the books we are reading. They are nerdy book club members for sure.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

More On Our Field Trip

On our recent field trip to the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. my students carried a bunch of digital cameras and flip video cameras. Usually during the school day I carry one of each around in the pocket of my lab coat, just in case a moment happens when I want one of them. For the field trip I gave out every camera I have, including those two. I had intended to charge my personal camera (the one I carry around in my purse at all times - I'm starting to think I have a problem) but I completely forgot to do so. As a result, I took pictures during the trip with my iPad. (I'm not proud of any of this but it is what it is.)

Here you can see a few of the kids with cameras. This is inside the Jefferson Memorial.
We had lunch outside the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. It was a stunning day.
 This was our view during lunch. That's the Jefferson Memorial across the Tidal Basin.
 I think I have a lot to learn about taking pictures with the iPad, but I'm glad I had something!

Monday, May 07, 2012

First Grade Photographers

Last week we took all 150 first graders to the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. We walked the nearly two miles around it stopping at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. My students had digital cameras and flip video cameras (about one per every two kids). I hope to share a lot more about this because it was an awesome field trip for so many reasons, but for the moment, here are a few of the shots the students took. I have done nothing to these pictures. I am so impressed with what these kids captured.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Reflecting as Peers

This afternoon thirty educators gathered in my classroom to support our preservice teachers and think about our work as educators. We do this twice a year.

We are a Professional Development School so we work closely with the university. A professor visits our school twice a week to observe and work with our interns (preservice teachers). Our staff is highly supportive of these budding teachers, not only those teachers who host them in their classrooms but their special education and ESOL coteachers, our literacy and math coaches, our librarian, everyone supports their learning.

At the end of each semester every intern shares a 'critical incident' from their teaching experience. We invite our entire staff to be there for the share. This is after school and is no way required for anyone beyond the interns.

Today there were thirty of us. Seven were the interns themselves and one was the professor. The rest were those of us who had hosted one of the interns at some point in the year, new teachers who had been interns last year, and others who came as support and to reflect and learn (including our librarian, a literacy coach, a special education teacher and an instructional assistant - none of whom can host these interns in their current roles).

I headed out of school at 5:30 this evening, having been there for nearly ten hours, feeling rejuvenated and walking on air. Times like this, when we come together to encourage one another and to grow ourselves, remind me why our school is so strong and remind me of what education can be. I'm immensely grateful for that.