Monday, November 24, 2014

Who knew? Reflections on NCTE14 Part I

Like so many of you, I'm back to school after a whirlwind experience at NCTE, an experience no ELA educator should miss. It's some of the best professional development around, but I didn't count on the surprises.

I was very fortunate to have been invited to an intimate dinner hosted by Random House Books there, celebrating five of its nonfiction picture book and middle grade authors. They included Candace Fleming, Trudy Ludwig, Emily Jenkins, Jen Bryant, and  Melissa Sweet. Jen and Melissa were honored the following day with the Orbis Pictus Award for their collaboration on A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin. (Jen's also the reason I was there. We have worked together before on a few school visits.)

Dinner was great, and the conversation interesting. The Random Houses representatives knew what every good hostess does - sitting people with whom they do not know makes for some interesting conversations. I was seated beside Emily Jenkins, a picture book author, who I found witty and thoughtful in our chatting with those sitting nearby, ruminating on the value of single sex education, on the best way to aid less skilled readers with read alouds, and how to best encourage alliterate preservice teachers. I discovered the next morning that Emily also writes YA under another name - E. Lockhart. You may have read her fabulous We Were Liars last spring or one of her Boyfriend List books.

A even better surprise that day was discovering Melissa Sweet's Balloons Over Broadway, her biography of the man who invented the balloons for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. I've long been a fan of her artwork. I didn't know she was a talented writer too. Somehow I missed this Caldecott winner. She also illustrated Michelle Markel's Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909 - another book on my to-buy list.

In another session, I was very glad to hear Kate Messner and other authors on a panel Jeff Anderson convened apply the term "mentor texts" to those books that influenced their work. The best surprise of the day was listening to Linda Urban serenade us with a Country Western song from her forthcoming book.

What surprises awaited you at NCTE?

Friday, November 14, 2014

Can We Talk?

Here's a draft of a letter that I'm writing to my students about advocating for themselves. Any thoughts before I push the print button?

Hello you,

This month’s theme for LEAD is self-advocacy, so I thought I’d give you a teacher’s perspective on how to best help yourselves. High school – gasp - is only a few months away.
First off, I love when you have a question about your grade or about something we discussed in class. I’d much rather hear that from you than from your parents first. After all, this is your education and you’re the one who has been sitting in class. But you need to choose your time to discuss it with me wisely. When I’m standing in the hallway between classes, it may look like I’m doing nothing, but I’m on duty to be sure nothing amiss happens there.

When I’m passing out papers or about to start speaking with the whole class are not great times either. I don’t have my assignment clipboard with me at these times, which if I made a mistake with your grade or you’re checking on missed assignments, I will need to consult. You probably also don’t want thirty other kids listening to our discussion either.

The best time to do these things is to ask me when I’m at my desk and you are supposed to be working on something independently. You might also make an appointment for the first few minutes of lunch if that doesn’t work out.

Checking Pinnacle often is key to not only knowing how well you are doing but also on checking to be sure your grades are correct. It’s very frustrating to hear a student say, “Remember that HW assignment from a month ago I showed you on my way to lunch?” No, I don’t. You’re much more likely to get credit for missed work if you address this sooner rather than later.

When emailing teachers, first keep us as readers in mind. We haven’t memorized your student ID numbers in your Gmail addresses. Be sure to include your first and last name, so we know who you are. Also follow standard letter writing procedures. Include the pleasantries of a greeting and closing and absolutely give us the context for why you’re writing. I overheard a student recently in a phone call to his mother about parent conferences say, “Mom, can you come in on Tuesday?” without mentioning why or which Tuesday he was referring to. No wonder the poor woman was confused. You’ll save everyone a lot of time if you give us all of the information up front.

By the way, most of us don’t check email after eight o’clock at night. If you want a timely reply, email us as early as possible. It also takes a while for email to get through the spam filter, so allow for that as well. While we’re on the topic of email, please remember to check for a response. Nothing makes me want to scream more than when I’ve taken the time to respond to an email than when someone asks me the exact same question in person because they didn’t bother to read it. Lastly, not everyone is able to check email every night. So if you don’t get a reply, be sure to follow up in person.

One final tip, please don’t ask us if we did something the day that you were absent. Of course, we did. Please ask someone else first what we did and then see us with follow-up questions like, “When should I make up the quiz I missed?” or “May I have a copy of the handout on blogposts?” You’ll score big points with us if you do.

That’s about it for now. Hope this helps.

Mrs. Jester

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.