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.