Saturday, January 26, 2013

Educon Encienda

Today at Educon were most of the Encienda presentations. These are 5 minute presentations with slideshows of 20 slides each, auto-advancing every 15 seconds. This is the fourth one I've done and I love it (for reasons I have not been able to identify yet). Here is my slideshow and I'll upload video of the Encienda when I get a chance. (My dad wants to watch it. No one else has to!)

My big idea is to try to see through children's eyes before making decisions that impact them.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Thank You Donors' Choose & Generous Folks

Donor's Choose has been fabulous for my class. I've put up four projects and they've all been funded (usually pretty quickly). We've gotten cameras, copies of The Dot for Dot Day, awesome chairs, and now books by Jan Thomas and Mo Willems.

I pulled the stack out and showed them one-by-one to my students. There were many gasps, cries of "I've read that book!" and much making of the connection sign (thumb and finger out pointing at yourself and then the other person, back and forth to show a connection between you). I wish I recorded that part.

After we oohed and aahed over the books I put them all out on a table and kiddos grabbed one and found a place to read. When they finished one they put it back and got another. They could have done it all day. It was a book celebration. I did record a bit of that.

(The video doesn't show up in Google Reader. Sigh.)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


That's what we call our Language Arts Block. I love that it abbreviates to L.A.B. It just feels right to me.

My school has worked hard over the past 15 years to establish powerful reading and writing workshops. Folks come from other schools to observe what we do. I love it. I'm really proud of it.

But in the past few years I wanted to take it further. So three years ago I tried an integrated block, reading and writing together. I had a few reasons for doing this:
  1. Time - with only one focus lesson and one share we have more time for the real work of our reading and writing - reading groups, independent reading, independent writing, guided writing groups, writing conferences, work stations to practice various literacy skills
  2. Student independence and responsibility - in the reading and writing workshop model we are telling students what they should be doing and for how long - write until we tell you to stop for share - work at your work station until we call you for guided reading - it didn't matter if kids felt finished before that or if they wanted more time
  3. Linking reading and writing - with separate reading and writing workshops students begin to see those two skills as separate - I wanted them to see all the ways reading and writing are linked and support one another
Setting up this integrated block is no small task. We start the year with separate reading and writing times to solidly establish routines and expectations for both. Just before we begin integrating the two we spend a couple of weeks looking at what we are doing during our reading and writing time and how those activities help us to become better readers and writers. We really dig into this. Not just, "I was writing." or "I was reading." We end up with a great list that includes things like, "I reread." and "I thought about what I wanted to write." and "I used the word wall." and "I talked to a friend about my book."

In the first few weeks of L.A.B. students have a half-page with three sections: Guided Reading, Independent Writing, and Work Station. When they finish one of those tasks they write about what they did there to become a better reader and writer. After a few weeks we phase out the paper as they begin to internalize these ideas.

Of course, there are times when I need to talk with a student about spending all their time at their work station and not doing any writing. Or vice versa. That's fine. We have those conversations, as often as we need to. Throughout the year we also revisit expectations and routines. Of course we do that in other parts of our day as well.

A few upper grade teachers have also given this a try and now our administration is interested in learning more. So our literacy coaches, a couple of us classroom teachers, and our administration will meet next week to talk about this idea.

In talking with a fourth grade teacher I found one comment really interesting. I was saying how much time I spend early in the year establishing routines and pushing students to think about what they are doing and how it is helping them become better readers and writers. The other teacher said that this seems to be harder in fourth grade than in first. After four years of school, four years of teachers telling students what to do and when and for how long, students have a rougher time being responsible for this themselves. It just makes me more determined to keep doing this with my students and making it better all the time.

Arming Teachers

Back in December I wrote a few posts about the various parts of my job and what they really look like. After the horrific events in Newtown, Connecticut I did a bit more reflecting on my job. Yesterday I wrote about our lockdown drill, our practice in case of such a terrifying possibility.

In related news, one of the blogs I enjoy reading is The Educated Reporter, from the National Education Writers Association. It helps me keep up to date on policy issues and other educational issues around the country.

Earlier this week Emily Richmond wrote about the current interest in arming teachers. My state, Virginia, is one of the states with bills proposing something along these lines (of course).

I find this possibility terrifying. I have fired guns before, skeet shooting with my mom when I was younger. (She used to hunt quail with her father, if I remember correctly.) I enjoyed that but I've never felt a need to shoot regularly or to own a gun. In fact, the idea of a gun in my house gives me nightmares. I have two daughters and the risk, in my mind, is just too great. A school with 700 students is even worse.

There are many aspects of my job I do not greatly enjoy. Some aspects I actively dislike. But if being armed becomes a part of my job it will be time to find a new job.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Lockdown Drill

We had a lockdown drill today. For those not in the know (and lucky you), this is the drill we practice in case of a dangerous person(s) in our building. We close and lock all doors, cover any interiors windows with dark paper, turn off the lights, pull down all blinds, gather in one corner, and be as quiet as possible.

When we told our little darlings about the drill some remembered doing this in kindergarten. That helped. We presented it in comparison with fire drills and tornado drills - drills that I don't think cause a lot of stress for our students. We explained what we would need to do without any drama (I hope).

Our principal announced the drill over the loudspeaker and the kids (mostly) quickly and quietly moved to the carpet. My intern and I took care of the lights, doors, and windows. Then we joined the kids on the carpet.

I pulled a book from nearby to whisper read to them. It seems unreasonable to ask first graders to just sit together silently. With my back to the door and a great distance between it and me I felt comfortable no one outside would hear me reading. I did pass on some really funny books though because I didn't want gales of laughter. I picked a sweet story.

On the whole my little darlings were fabulous. They were quiet the whole time. Even when someone knocked on our door as a test.

I felt a surprising level of stress given that it was a drill. I knew it wasn't real, but I still felt anxious. (I'm not a naturally anxious person.) I'm not sure how my students felt but I observed and overheard some things that were both concerning and humorous.

Two little girls sat beside one another on the carpet holding hands. I think they needed that physical reassurance of their safety. One child remarked after the drill about how scary it was. Another boy decided it was a drill in case zombies came. After we opened the door and pulled up the blinds he said, "Oh no, the zombies will come! Go hide!" and ducked off around the corner of our couch. I don't think he was really worried but it's hard to be sure.

I'm not a fan of this piece of my job. I don't think our students feel more reassured by the practice of these drills. That doesn't mean I question the importance of them. But I think students either feel anxiety as a result or don't really feel anything about them. I don't like doing anything that raises my kiddos' anxiety levels, even when I know we need to.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

I'm Not Too Busy

Last year I wrote about getting my own box of grapefruit from my grandparents and my mother's offer to cut it for me. She was concerned that I was too busy. (I did manage to cut up my own grapefruit and did so again this year.) I am also often concerned that I'm too busy.

But I've been thinking a lot about this lately. A post Dean Shareski wrote a couple of years ago came to mind. (I don't know how many blog posts stick with me over multiple years but this one did.)

The language we use is something I am acutely aware of these days. This may be a result of reading both Choice Words and Opening Minds last summer. I'm working on changing my language about this issue. Instead of saying "I don't have time for that." I'll say "I'm not prioritizing that."

I may not say that directly to other people in certain instances, such as when I am unwilling to help with something, but I will still make the effort to recognize it for myself.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed with tasks and busyness. When I remember that I am so busy because of things that matter to me it is easier to take. Being busy also quickly becomes an excuse. It's the reason I don't get up and go to the gym. It's the reason I haven't unpacked the boxes that sit in our dining room from the holidays. It's the reason I haven't worked with our oldest on some strategies for stress we've thought about. I'm just too busy.

But I'm not. I have time to watch an hour or two of tv each evening. I have time to go to dinner with friends. I have time to read books I want to read. I have time to sit at the piano with my girls and play and sing.

It's not busy. It's priorities. Remembering that may also help me ensure that I am prioritizing the things that truly matter to me. This week will be a busy week. But it will be that way because it is full of things I very much want to do.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Give Me a Good Reason, Please

I know it is sweeping the nation and we are far from alone, but I still don't understand the idea of common pacing. Planning together I get. I've been doing that for years and it is wonderful. Multiple brains talking about ways to teach and what different students need is much better than just one brain. Collaboration is an amazing thing in education.

But common pacing? We're doing this in math right now - to some extent. We're planning as a team once a week. No one is checking in to make sure we are following it and we've talked about the fact that we won't all be teaching the exact same lesson on the exact same day. This makes a lot of sense to me. We're benefiting from the co-planning piece, all the brains working together, but we can adapt to student needs and changes in schedules.

We're also working on planning a unit together about writing reports. Again, we're talking about what our students need, how to support them as they learn, what resources are helpful, and some ideas about assessment. All useful conversations. But it's unlikely we'll be teaching it all at the same time. Or in the exact same way.

In a meeting today it was said that we should know that the expectations for common pacing will be tighter as we move forward. Why? What is the benefit? What am I not seeing?

My perspective on common pacing is that it is focused on content rather than on students. That is wrong to me. Our learners should drive the learning they are doing, not the other way around.

Please, please, please tell me if you have another view. I cannot see another perspective here.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Firefighter is to Teacher as...

My morning commute takes me past a volunteer fire station. It's a place we've come to know well in recent years as we've taken our daughters there for the open house during Fire Safety Week and to a pancake breakfast with Santa each December. One of our neighbors drives an ambulance for the station.

There have also been a number of firefighters in the periphery of my life for many years. A family friend was lucky enough to be on duty one evening to answer a call at our home after a minor bathroom fire. His son, a boy I babysat as a teen, is now a firefighter. One nephew of ours is trained as a firefighter, although I don't think he is actually doing that work at the moment.

For the reasons above or for reasons I don't understand, I've been thinking a lot about volunteer and career firefighters. After a bit of research I've learned that often they have the exact same level of training.

Now I have more questions than I had before. Why do we as a society need volunteer firefighters? We don't have volunteer police officers. What would it cost us to have all career firefighters? Are there reasons other than financial that explain all of the volunteer fire stations across the country?

Of course, I can't help but compare this to education. Volunteer firefighters have the same level of training as career firefighters. They may not get paid for the job but they are still expected to be fully competent to do it. The analogy to groups like Teach for America seems obvious to me. Not only do those teachers not have the same level of training as career teachers, they also cost their school districts more because of the costs involved with Teach for America. Why is it possible to require full training for volunteer firefighters but not for teachers?

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Complexities of Learning to Read

This morning I headed down to our phenomenal book room to find some new books for my guided reading groups. I was looking for titles at pretty early reading levels (about end of kindergarten, early first grade benchmarks).

In spite of the wealth of titles in our book room, I struggled to find good books for my little readers. Many of my students speak English as a second language (or 3rd or 4th). They are still gaining vocabulary and a firm understanding of the language structure. As a result, some books are much more challenging than their level would suggest.

When kids are learning to read there is so much going on, so much that we take for granted once we learn to read. They are thinking about how the words look, how the sentences are formed and organized, and the meaning behind the text. It's a bit overwhelming when you step back and analyze it.

Learning to read is much easier for students who have a lot of vocabulary, lots of background knowledge about things, and have a solid understanding of the structure of the language.

I rejected books today because they had unusual animals in them, like slugs or because they called animals by less common names, hen rather than chicken. These words are unlikely to be known by my students.

I rejected books that rhyme because creating that often involves using words or language structures that are not typical in our spoken language.

I rejected books because they involved activities or places that my students are unlikely to know anything about, such as riding a train or New York City. The vocabulary and ideas become challenging when one has no background knowledge.

These are not bad books. (Well, some of them are but not really for these reasons.) They are not even books that are impossible for my darlings to read, they are just much easier for some kids to read than others. My little first graders are pretty brilliant. They have a lot of background knowledge about certain things but not always the things that are valued by publishers of early reader books. They can speak multiple languages, something I, sadly, can't do. They will learn to read, I have no doubt of that. I'm just acutely aware of all the challenges facing them in that process.

Thursday, January 03, 2013


Cause and effect are often difficult to determine. When I think about who I am as a teacher I wonder what caused certain things. Am I a reflective educator because I went through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards process in my fourth year teaching? Am I more thoughtful now about living the Golden Rule with my students because I have my own children and I want to be the teacher I want for them? Am I willing to share materials and ideas because I have always taught at a school where that is the norm?

I find myself somewhat at odds with many of my colleagues in recent months because I seem to question everything. Our school is adjusting to new leadership at many levels (our own administration as well as that of our cluster in our district) and that has meant many changes. For whatever reason I push back about pretty much all of these changes. It isn't that I am unwilling to change. At least I don't believe so. I just want to be sure that what we are doing is best for our students. And best for them beyond simply their test scores. Best for them as people and learners.

Am I pushing back while others don't because I am in my 15th year at this school and I feel comfortable not just going along? Am I pushing back simply because I'm ornery? Am I pushing back because I fear change?

Honestly, I believe this space and those of all the other teachers, administrators, and educators online are the reason I push back. I believe the reading of others' reflections, questions, and thoughts and the conversations that have ensued from those is the reason. I believe my time spent here (online in the education sphere) has pushed me in ways no one school could ever do.

Thank you to everyone who continues to share of themselves as educators here online. Thank you for your thoughts, your conversations, and your openness. I'm sure I am not alone in believing in the value it has for me and for all of us.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Terms I Hate: Classroom Management

One of my recent reads, thanks to the recommendations of several people, was Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. Just a quick aside, I ended up abandoning the book even though I was intrigued by it because I found it impossible not to question everything I read based on the author having fabricated quotes. Not knowing what was truthful and what was not made it too hard for me to get anything from the book. I'm sorry I didn't read it when it first came out, before learning all this. Had I done so, I would have had to rethink some things when the truth was revealed but I wouldn't likely have dismissed it all out of hand as I seemed to do when I read it.

Anyway, my point in mentioning the book had nothing to do with the above ramblings, although it does involve a quote from a source so take it as you will. There is quite a bit in the book about 3M, the company that makes post-it notes as well as a plethora of other products.
"It's a little amusing that people think Google invented this idea," Wendling says. "We've been doing it here forever. At first, people thought we were crazy. They said employees need to be managed. They said the scientists would just waste their free time, that we'd be squandering all our R and D money. But here's the thing about the fifteen percent rule; it works." (p. 30)
While I love the idea of the 15% rule, or 20%, or whatever, that's not what struck me. "They said employees need to be managed."

I struggle so much with the term 'classroom management' because it seems to suggest a level of control over other people that I have no interest in having. I use the term, hesitantly, when I talk about choices I make in the classroom to improve flow in our space and our time as well as ways I try to help students make positive choices and grow in their independence. But I don't like it. The connotations in education today simply give me the heebie-jeebies.

I appreciate the fact that this company believed in their employees and trusted them. Show people that you have faith in them, be they students or employees, and the majority of the time they will live up to that faith.

I think I may be back to the idea of treating students like people. Of course, if we feel a need to manage adults it's possible we aren't treating them like people either.

My nine-year-old loves to remind me that I am always lecturing her about the Golden Rule. She brings it up when someone else is treating her badly as her reasoning for doing the same. It never holds water with me but it's an interesting argument. Regardless of her take on it (although I am still working on that one) the Golden Rule is always there for me. If I would not want to be treated in a certain way then I should not be treating my students, my daughters, my coworkers, anyone else in that way. It's not a standard I live up to by any means, but it is a worthy goal.