Tuesday, October 28, 2014

National Writing Day - My Community

Just finished typing some of the poems my students created for National Day on Writing, October 21, 2014. At Franconia Elementary we celebrate Writing Day in many ways. This year the theme, Write My Community, felt awkward. In the past kids spent time writing about why they wrote, what they wrote, and how they could connect to others by writing. Write My Community was a bit more challenging, but it turned out to be a topic my third graders could relate to and write about with passion and voice.

Community can mean your home...

Remember all the memories
Sisters, mom, dad, dogs, and cats.
I am loved and feel safe.
It’s comfortable, soft and warm.
Everything you need to join the fun
The toy room’s fun and my room is, too
There’s no house like mine
Full home and hearts
For days, week, months and years.

by Taylor & Ava

Community can also be our school and the people in it...


Painting portraits
Being creative,
painting pictures
My art teacher sees my pictures
She says
“You are an artist.”
I always stay focused on my pictures
when I’m painting,
or coloring
as my art teacher says,
“I am an artist.”

-by Charlotte

Community is also the place we live. Armed with writer's notebooks the third grade spent the afternoon out in the community writing about the pool, the park, and the places that make their community special to them.
The Pool

Having fun
Mom watching
Dad watching
Deep end swimming test.
Cool water
Playing in the pool,
So much fun
In the pool!
-by Caitlin

I wasn't sure what would happen when the day began. I wasn't sure the children would understand how writing was helping them discover their community. I wasn't sure poems would be found in the free writes of eight years-olds. I wasn't sure but I AM thrilled with the words my poets found when they wrote "My Community". 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Who's Cheating Whom?

A friend just relayed a conversation she’d had with a student in her school. She was covering a class for another English teacher and asked the kids what they had been doing in class. The students relayed that they were reading some pretty heavy literature that outmatched some of them. When my friend asked what the teacher was doing to help them navigate the text, they assured her that it was okay. Their teacher had already given them permission to use Spark Notes if they were confused.

What a shame. What a shame that with thousands of books published every year that they are being forced to read something beyond their ken in the name of rigor. What a shame that they are being denied the chance to fall in love with a book that they can comprehend. What a shame that they are being taught that it’s okay to cut corners.

It puts me in mind of a provocative piece a while back from The New York Times  by Dave Tomar called “How I Helped Teachers Cheat.” 

Tomar was a ghostwriter for graduate students, many of them teachers and administrators. He opined that if these educators were willing to submit a paper that they hadn't written for a grade that changing a few answers on a students paper wasn't so unfathomable in light of high stakes testing and the accompanying scandals in recent years. Reading Tomar's accusations made me mad. Here was a man who made his living by cheating. What made me madder was that he was right. Teachers who cheat for themselves might just be willing to help their schools earn higher scores the easy way.

He wrote the piece not to call teachers out so much (after all they were his bread and butter) as to call for an end to relentless testing. I certainly would be happier if it disappeared but not because it fosters cheating. What I'm more concerned about is the casual approach to cheating.

Some students reported today that their history teacher told them that the novel they were reading for her class had been chosen by her predecessor in part because there weren't any Spark notes on it. Surely there has to be a middle ground between assigning a too hard book that requires outside help and one that isn't very engaging because kids can't find outside help. There is. There are thousands of books published every year and strategies to teach those that are at an appropriate instructional level for those willing to learn them. Pick up Kylene Beers and Bob Probst's Notice and Note or Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts' How to Fall in Love with Close Reading or The Art of Slow Reading by Tom Newkirk.So much has been published on close reading lately. The choice is yours but pick.

Encouraging cheating or choosing a less engaging text to avoid doing so both cheat our students any way you look at it. They deserve better than this from us.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

When Time is NOT Yours

Time. The word sends shivers up my spine. It's the constant complaint of every teacher I know. It was the basis for a very recent blog at Two Writing Teachers and it made me stop and think about TIME.

Recently I have been that teacher bemoaning the fact that there just isn't enough TIME. And it seems odd to me because I seemed to have enough time last year. I seemed to be able to fit in my workshops and read aloud. I seemed to be able to plan for individual reading conferences and strategy groups. I seemed to have TIME under control. What is different about this this year?

I went back to my planbook and did an autopsy - a planbook autopsy. What do my plans show about how I spend my time? How are my energies spent? What have we been doing as a class so far this year? What does this say about what I value?

So I noticed...
        time spent investigating readers; watching them to learn what a reader looks like and does;
        time spent learning strategies readers use to make meaning;
        time spent gathering the stuff of our lives in our writer's notebooks;
        time spent laughing at poems about underwear and school;
        time spent discovering what it means to be in a respectful, responsible, learning community;               time spent giving running records,
        time spent giving and scoring reading assessments,
        time spent administering math benchmarks AND math enrichment assessments,
        time spent giving a computerized test called the CDT.

Do you see it? I knew it before I began writing but when it is written out, in black and white, on a blog, well, it seems even more apparent. I have spent a lot of time (that stuff I can't get back, that thing that is in short supply, that intangible object we teachers never have enough of) doing what I do not value and do not find help me be a better teacher - ASSESSING for the sake of assessing.

Randy Bomer, in a Time for Meaning, reminds us that when we are unable to spend time on what we value most, it is because we have lost our clarity of purpose. I propose that have not lost my clarity of purpose, but that my purpose was overriden when the insanity of testing became common place and numbers mattered. Look again at how I've spent my time:

  • Helping children see themselves as readers.
  • Helping young children develop skills that will enable them to make meaning as they read so they want to read and enjoy reading.
  • Writing our lives because our lives are important.
  • Laughing together because learning is fun.
  • Building a caring classroom community.
  • Listening to readers read and learning about them as readers, so I can teach them what they need to become more successful.
Those are things I value and want to spend time on. Those things matter. Unfortunately, time is not always mine. Sometimes it belongs to someone who does not share what I value. I am still here, in my classroom, teaching 8and 9 year old children. I will administer the assessments because I have to. But I have a greater vision of what teaching should look like and is, and I will teach what I value. Time is valuable, not to be wasted. Time. Guard it as the precious commodity that is is. Time.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

It Doesn't Always Go Easy

I've had a student observer two days a week since the beginning of the school year. She's a graduate student who'll begin her student teaching in the spring. She asked to observe me after hearing from the undergraduate who observed me last spring what a great teacher I was. He was so taken with my actually practicing the theories he was learning about like having authentic purposes and audiences for writing that he couldn’t sing my praises enough at their shared seminar. She was expecting to see amazing. That hasn’t been the case.
 Though I’m not sure I ever deserved Bill’s effusive praise, I’m definitely off my game. I may be trying to do too many things at once: implementing the use of Googledocs for conferring, moving up the teaching of Notice and Note in the batting order, trying out a new vocabulary series. It seems to take forever to get anything done. While I know that patience is a virtue and that time spent well now will reap greater rewards later, I’m also aware that the end of the marking is looming. Whatever the reason, I’m dissatisfied and suddenly self-conscious about being observed.

Let me be quite clear. My observer has been lovely and not judgemental in the least. But I’m self-conscious all the same. While a part of me wishes that she weren’t in the room, I know that seeing veteran teachers struggle from time to time can also be instructive. When the kids are working quietly on something, she’ll ask questions and/or I’ll offer why I did a particular something - decided to read aloud from a particular perch in the room, split up two weak readers into different lit. circle groups, used an excerpt from a story we read in a minilesson on writing.
I also explain what I would have done had things moved more quickly. Tell her whose shoulders I am standing on when we began Article of the Week. (That’s Kelly Gallagher of course) I ask her questions about what she’s noticed and why she thinks I conferred with certain students that day. I trust that what she’s observed and discussed will serve her future teaching well even if it’s not what I hoped for.

No one wants to be seen doing less than their best, but perhaps seeing how we handle less than ideal situations will help her learn how to handle her own. I hope so.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Our NWP Week

#OurNWP Week. I came across this last night.
The National Writing Project is celebrating 40 years.  40 YEARS! As part of the celebration, NWP teacher/consultants (or fellows, as we once were called) blogged this summer about our experiences with the writing project and about what the National Writing Project means to us. This week NWP is celebrating with Our NWP Week. "Our NWP week is a celebration of our accomplishments to date as we look forward to the innovation and possibilities to come. Through our stories, reflections, and artifacts, we better understand what we have been and imagine what we are becoming."

This made me think about what I did today, in my classroom because I am a National Writing Project fellow...
  1. I began  today with writing. Let's write into the day...
  2. I believed that every child had something to say, so I taught children ways to find their voice and celebrated with them when it was heard.
  3. I conferred with children about what they wrote  and then taught them strategies I use when I write.
  4. I gave children a chance to discover what they were thinking by allowing them to write and wonder throughout the day. 
  5. I showed children ways to use words to effectively communicate what they are feeling and thinking in math, science, social studies, and beyond the curricular arena.
  6. I treasured what was written to me by a student.
I do these things because at a Summer Invitational Writing Institute, at a PA Writing and Literature Project professional development day, at a National Writing Project writing retreat, at all National Writing Project meetings and conferences, and at the numerous NWP functions I have been privileged to attend - these actions were modeled for me and made an impact on me as a writer and a teacher. This what NWP has been for me. And tomorrow it will push me to consider ways to connect my third grade students to the world through blogging and tweeting. It will keep me invigorated as I consider ways to push my thinking and profession forward.

I celebrate with the National Writing Project. I am glad I found my local site and encourage you to find your site. It will a game-changer when you do.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Derek Jeter Wasn't The Only Loss This Week

Thursday night was the Derek Jeter’s last at shortstop. Monday afternoon Patti Tatum turned in her retirement papers. As the Captain had told his bosses before spring training that this season would be his last, he was feted wherever he went for months. Patti hadn’t known until last weekend that her FMLA would become permanent. Many at school still don’t know that she’s not coming back. No matter. Even if she had finished a few years from now, no fan of the limelight, she would have let us know after the fact. Number 2 entertained us for twenty years as a Bronx Bomber. True blue, Patti taught us here in Kennett for thirty-eight years.

I say us even though I never had her for American History or computers or learning support or third grade. My colleagues and I learned from her nonetheless. She taught us to see the big picture without losing sight of the details, to put thinking like a historian ahead of regurgitating names and dates, to show the rest of us that it matters more that something is done thoughtfully rather than the fanfare that might accompany it. Though we all laugh about things being done on Tatum Time, there is no doubt that what’s really important had been tended to.

She also taught us to be generous of spirit. When colleagues found themselves in a professional quandary regarding parental communication, grading procedures, behavior issues, and the like, it was Patti’s counsel they sought. When others faced crises in their personal lives, she looked for what would make their days just a bit easier and then went about redistributing parent conferences, organizing meals to be delivered, or covering classes – whatever needed to be done and usually at a cost to herself. Patti often worked quietly behind the scenes to ease a colleague’s load without the beneficiary being aware that she’d arranged matters on his or her behalf. She will go quite literally to the ends of the Earth for a friend.

We also learned to strive for equanimity in all things. She was nonplussed by what would drive the rest of us to distraction whether in her role as team leader, teacher, or parent. Conflicts were diffused by dispassionate reasoning. We knew that when a problem arose in school, we’d be greeted with “Okay. Let’s think about this.” Personal challenges are met head on without fuss. For example, at a faculty-student game some twenty years ago, Patti and her husband arrived just as the game was starting and explained that they had just been in a head-on collision, their young daughters in the back seat, just blocks from school. When I asked incredulously what in the world they were doing at the game, she replied, “There wasn’t anything we could do about the car. It’s totaled, so we may as well play.” When I protested further that we could have gotten along without them, she held up her hand,”I want my girls to know that life goes on.”

It’s a lesson the rest of will have to learn too. Though we’re always sad to see friends retire, especially those who have taught our students well enough to have earned Teacher of the Year as she did in June, this is a particularly hard one for us to stomach because we know that we are no longer her “students”.  We will now have to demonstrate that she’s taught us well – to focus on what’s important, to help others, to be grown-ups. Her legacy in part will be what we do with those lessons. That will mean so much more to her than a Nike commercial, having her number retired, or an eventual trip to Cooperstown. Don't worry, Patti. We'll be swinging for the fences. You taught us that.