Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Living the Question

...I would like to beg you dear, Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903
in Letters to a Young Poet

This year my grade level colleagues and I are embarking on a journey into the land of inquiry with our students. For too long I have pretended to "ask questions", pretended to allow students to find answers, pretended to be a facilitator of thought when all I have been is an enabler, enabling passive learning. 

I plead guilty. I have asked questions that require a simple answer, clean and clear cut. I have answered more questions than I wish to number, and I don't know why. I have allowed children to sit, content with what they know, not challenging them to delve into the unknown. That stops  NOW!

After reading Learning for Real this summer, my colleagues and I decided it was time to make a change. Inspired by the stories and the lessons from the Center for Inquiry, we decided to begin our own inquiry. We began asking questions. We imagined classrooms where questions were common-place and children grappled with possible answers. We envisioned children posing questions and exploring their world for possible solutions and answers. We saw children engaged in their own learning, becoming passionate learners. Then we asked questions; How would we begin? What subject area might work best to start? How would we model curiosity and questioning? Where would this lead us? Are we comfortable enough to live with unanswered questions and uncertainty? 

The school year is barely three weeks old, but we have begun our journey. Children are looking closely at artifacts of all kinds and making observations. From there they ask questions, ask questions, and ask questions. A buzz of discussion begins as children notice, make statements, and begin to wonder. Children unlock possible answers, reflect on their thinking, and realize they have more questions.

Where will this lead us? How will the inquiry process of generating questions, researching (in the broadest sense), and reflecting on answers enhance student motivation to learn and deepen the learning process? The journey has just begun...

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

L.E.A.D.: One Take on a Mentoring Program

The excitement was palpable Friday morning. Every teacher had a different means of distributing the invitations. Some went alphabetically. Others delivered randomly. Still others by seating arrangement. My friend Janell opted to group by kind. She announced, "I have three James Madisons. Paula, Hunter, and Alex, come on down. I have two spider webs for Tori and Maria." After those chosen came to collect their prizes, she continued, " I have a rock.." Sam interrupted her, "Oh, I want a rock." Luckily, it was for him. But let me explain.

Monday was our first day of LEAD, our schoolwide mentoring program that began last Spring that meets for thirty minutes every two weeks. LEAD stands for Listen, Encourage, Advise, and Discuss. We go over grades with our mentees, brainstorm how to handle academic problems, run their parent conferences, and serve as their spirit groups for various school activities like Field Day. Basically, we're their peeps, and they are ours. Here's how we do it.

Teachers "draft" a roster of fourteen kids to be in our groups. We try to include an even amount of kids who could use some special attention, those who are high achievers, and those somewhere in-between. Last Monday was our draft day, so 8th grade teachers wore our school's jerseys to get everyone psyched up. After school, we met to pick five kids at a time to enter into a Googledoc. With twenty teachers competing for the same pool of kids, you can imagine the fun. "No, you can't have him!" Though I had made my list the week before which included alternates if certain kids were already taken, I hadn't alphabetized my list, a rookie mistake I will not repeat.

Then Friday students received personalized invitations to join us. Think about those baby gender reveal parties but with twenty of us competing to outdo the other. There was even some subterfuge going on so as to prevent great ideas from being stolen. Invitations ranged from a pair of crazy socks with the enjoinder to "Come knock my socks off" to individually made pizza boxes to guitar picks, picking them, to rebus puzzles to sunglasses with student names inscribed on them. I chose to make the owls above with rocks from my garden and quoted John Green, asking students to come "Get less stupid together."

No matter what they got, they were thrilled. They sported the spider rings or bows that adorned some invitations (and of course, those crazy socks) and seemed genuinely touched that we fought over them. "Wait, I went in the first round?!"

Each class was shortened by four minutes to carve out the requisite half hour on Monday. After copying down their schedules for their parents to use at Back to School Night, that session was all about getting to know each other. With a class of 325 kids, none of the kids in my group knew everyone else's name. We saw to that by playing the Add-on game. Each student stated their name and most recently eaten ice cream flavor and repeated all those who had come before them. We helped those out with poor memories. We also played Two Truths and a Lie. Next time will be more academic, but relationship building is important for the kids with each other too.

I'll update you on our progress throughout the year. Let us know if you've got ideas for us to steal.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Spinning Plates

Back when I was working with Cycle America, my boss stated that he had all of his plates spinning nicely at the moment and he just had to keep them in the air for another couple of weeks and he'd be okay. I asked him what he meant and he reminded me of the circus act in which, well, plate spinners spin several plates at a time, tending to one, then the other, often running back and forth just to twist the supporting posts ever so slightly to help each plate keep its momentum.

I've never forgotten that metaphor. (When he said it, I didn't even know what a metaphor was! Man,
I'm getting along in life). From the time I began teaching, I thought of myself as a plate spinner. I spun 9th grade honors English alongside Public Speaking; Senior AP English alongside the theater program; always spinning others' education with my own. It's enough to make me dizzy.

I'm currently working on my principal certification and I'm finding that trying to teach and be an intern/administrator is very difficult. Not that I had any inkling that it wouldn't be difficult but now that I'm actually doing it, I'm finding the plates more and more wobbly. It's like I'm spinning oval platters, rather than dinner plates. I don't think they do that in the circus.

My role at my school feels very different this year. Already, I am seeing things through many different lenses. Some of the lenses I'm finding and looking through myself. Some of them are being forced upon me like a bad contact prescription. But they're all worthwhile. Each lens is teaching me something different. It's just that once I put the lens on, I have to keep the plate spinning, lest I forget to account for it.

So as I run back and forth between classes, or up and down stairs between office visits and preparation periods, think of me spinning my plates. It's a great experience and I'm looking forward to seeing which plates make it and which plates break. The best part is, I'll learn from both outcomes.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Teacher as Struggler

One of my colleagues began teaching a Zumba class after school last week. For the uninitiated, Zumba is a Latin aerobics class. I'd tried one or two classes a few years back at my gym, but they were so crowded that the complicated steps left my two left feet crashing into those around me. I vowed to stick with Body Pump.

When Joy offered to teach, a group of my friends jumped at the chance, and I decided to give it another go.  There are far fewer of us in the class though I do have to be careful about not careening into a teacher desk. The steps are just as complicated, but Joy is patient and let us know what to expect in each song. She doesn't point out what we are doing wrong. If we are moving and having fun, that's what matters. We are not rehearsing for a performance at Radio City Music Hall.

Of course, we still want to get it right. We watch what she and others who seem to catch on more quickly are doing and try to emulate that. We ask questions between songs to go over step combinations. "How is salsa different than merengue?" We then do some approximation of the move until eventually it looks like what Joy is doing. (Well, sort of.) None of us look like the woman above. We're red-faced and sweaty, foreheads furrowed in concentration. We are having fun nonetheless.

When I wasn't trying to figure out which foot crosses over the other in a grapevine, I wished that my students were watching us. Not to admire our prowess, but our stick-to-it-iveness. Moving gracefully might be their forte, but it has never been mine. I'd like them to see me struggle a bit. Some seem to believe that I was born knowing how to read and write well. Even when I show them the twenty drafts it took to get something right, they still see excellence.

I don't know how the others would feel about having an audience, and we really can't fit that many more people in there with all of those desks, but sharing what we're doing to get better at Zumba could certainly help them get better at solving equations, divining rhyme scheme, learning how to code, etc. By exposing our inadequacies in something other than our field, we let them in on the secret that there can be no success without genuine struggle first. Certainly, that's a secret worth sharing.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Face, A Vision

I've been sitting at my computer for over an hour trying to recall forgotten passwords to sites I want to use this year with my third graders. Which e-mail account did I use to register my students on Kidblog? What password did I use for BiblioNasium? Should I start over? (No, they won't let me because I have an account!) Each year I tell myself that this is the year I will spend a day in early August getting ALL this organized, and yet it never happens.

There are numerous reasons why. Most are not very good. So I decided to really reflect on my issue with "Back-to-school" procrastination. Why don't I spend time "getting ready"? Am I really so in denial that school will restart I avoid the task of prepping for the coming school year? Am I really nervous for the new year? Do I want to avoid the "beginning" of school? ( I really hate those first few days of "getting to know you" activities.) What is it???

Tonight as I searched for those lost passwords and created blog accounts for my kids, I wasn't stressed or longing to leave this keyboard, I was excited. I pictured Hudson sitting down in front of a computer logging his first book on Biblionasium and getting a badge. I saw Charlotte writing a blog post on KidBlog and excitedly telling me she had received a response. I had a clear vision of what could be for the 2014 - 2015 school year. A vision I couldn't have had in early August. The reason for this...I now have faces to match the names of the students in my room. I know something about each student so I can hope and dream for this year with a better sense of what can be... Anthony writing on our class blog about favorite books and encouraging his friends to try out  Captain Awesome. Or... Giancarlo tracking his reading by logging his books and celebrating when he reaches his goal. I see faces, real faces, and can create a vision for my class with them in mind.

Goal setting takes on real meaning when it is done with a real audience in mind. It means something when the students are really in the goal. I'm not ready to set my goals just yet, but I'm beginning to have a clearer vision of where this year's class just might go.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014


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Every day I post a quote on the board. Most are related to literacy. Some are merely inspirational. I took this idea from Donald Murray, who was a Professor Emeritus at the University of New Hampshire and a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for The Boston Globe. He had a phrase hanging above his desk that read “nulla dies sine linea”, which translates to “never a day without a line.’  Murray was so fond of quotes that he compiled them into a book some years ago called Shoptalk: Learning to Write with Writers. Many of my quotes are drawn from this source
I try to link the quote that's posted with what we are doing that day. Yesterday we were responding to our first Article of the Week, so it only made sense that Kelly Gallagher’s words, “Confusion is where learning occurs” greeted my students. Today’s quote is more serendipitous.  It comes from Somerset Maugham. “To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from the miseries of the world.” It’s one of the more general quotes that can work any day. But it seems particularly apt today on the heels of a second American journalist beheading, continued unrest in the Ukraine, and the unchecked spread of Ebola. I need a break from the bad news.

I certainly find it in my interactions with students, but there’s nothing like a good story to steal you away. I’m about to start reading Jacqueline Winspear’s The Care and Management of Lies. My friend introduced me to her writing last winter. I so fell for her Maisie Dobbs that I’ve bought Carole a copy of her new book as a thank you. Winspear is sure to offer me the refuge that Maugham speaks of. What will you do to salve your soul? Lies aren't the only things that need care and management. Teachers do too.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Labor Day

I decided to make this change because I wanted to teach tenth graders. I want to be part of the team that teaches students who are going to take the Keystone exam in April. I feel like I should have a part in the process, especially if my pay is going to be connected to my students' success!I'm sitting at home on my school computer and wondering how this week could possibly be "over!" Many of you started back with students this week. I started back with in-service and will see my students on Tuesday; something I'm greatly looking forward to. 

I was just about to write "This year promises to be an interesting year for me," but I decided not to (well, sort of...) because 1.) I've probably written that before and 2.) every year is interesting! How could it not be. I work with high school students.

That said, there are some new things happening for me this year that I will write about. First, I am no longer teaching Senior Advanced Placement. This was a decision I made (requested) in the spring of last year, but now that it's August, I feel a bit nostalgic toward my AP students and class. After all, Senior AP was a huge part of my identity in my school. First, I gave up the theater program and now this? Wow!

I also chose to teach tenth grade because I am working toward my principal certification this year. I strongly feel that it's important to have taught classes toward standardized tests, so I know what goes into it and how it feels. While I did have to deal with the AP "standardized" test, the Keystone exams are much more important in terms of our educational climate. As an aspiring principal, I need to have that crucial experience under my belt. I'm looking forward to the challenge!

I hope you have all had a restful summer and are looking forward to this year as much as I am. I'm entering it from many different angles: principal intern, teacher of sophomores, my final year in the classroom? I've never done any of this before. It's scary, but it's also invigorating!

Enjoy your time with your students! Happy new year!