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.