Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Taking the Good with the Bad

Even though it worked last week, I was really scared again this week. No need; once again I found that even though I am not focusing on the core reading story, the work that I'm doing with the skills and strategies is carrying over to the assessment. This week I had only 3 students who did not meet the proficient level which is 2 better than last week. Hopefully we will continue to see this amazing growth. It's especially exciting to see my kids who have always struggled and not reached that proficient level in the past recognize that they are being successful applying their skills. I'm so proud of them and happy for them!

So that's the good news. What's the bad?

The bad news is that, "We need to move on." Even though I'm not finished teaching all of the skills in this particular unit, even though I took the time to make sure my kids really GOT IT this year, even though we haven't quite mastered all the skills in this unit, if we don't move on right now we will never finish all of the skills we need to finish before the state tests in the middle of March. Who in the WORLD gives end of year benchmark tests in March???

This is one of those frustrating times when I feel so powerless. My kids are doing really well, and if they had just a little bit more time they would be ready. But they aren't right now, and there is nothing I can do about it. Give the assessment... get the grades... move on to the next chapter... gotta get ready for the tests. I want my Leos (as in Leo the Late Bloomers for those of you who aren't up on your picture books) to have the chance to bloom when they are ready, and it hurts when I can't give them that opportunity.

I've got to figure out a way to make this work for my kiddos within the constraints of our schedule. The question is how?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

It Worked!!

I had no reason to be scared or worried! My kids did so well on their selection tests. There are three factors that played into this, I think:

1. My kids are reading a lot more than ever before
2. The teaching strategies that I used were very different
3. We listened to the story right before taking the selection test.

I polled the kids today, and they all said that they felt that there were things about all three that helped them improve this week. I'm going to continue working on these three things to see if my kids' scores continue to improve.

So exciting!! :)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Scary, in A Good Way

Yesterday as I passed out our required reading test we take after finishing instruction on each skill and strategy I got very nervous. For the first time ever I was really scared about how my kids would do.

I'm teaching very differently than I have in the past. In previous years we focused specifically on that one story and the skills specifically related to that story. We did the worksheets provided by the book, and sadly - I was totally teaching to the test. I wasn't teaching my kids to be better readers. I was teaching my kids to be successful test takers, and that needs to change.

Our strategy this week was evaluating, and our skill was understanding fact and opinion. Okay, first of all they picked a really stupid story for evaluating: it's boring, the kids (especially the boys) can't connect to it, and it doesn't inspire any thinking. That's not just my opinion - those are things the kids have expressed during the last two years. So we talked about evaluating a story (which in and of itself is such a contrived skill) and when we might use it. But then I put evaluating into a context every kid can understand: picking something for your Christmas list (yes, all my kids celebrate Christmas). We talked about how you can use both data and your own ideas (facts and opinions) to evaluate something and discussed the questions that you might ask yourself when you're evaluating. It was an awesome discussion, and the kids were able to share other places and times where they or their parents might evaluate things in their real life. Somebody even chimed in with, "OH!!! Then you can use this stuff to persuade your parents to get it for you!" GOOSEBUMPS!

The fun part came in an extra part that I added to the assessment. Once they finished the selection test, each student had to visit our class wiki and check out the evaluation page. There were two links to click on, and the scenario that I set was that I had money to buy something for our classroom but I could only buy one thing. The links went to a Wii and an iPad. After looking at the links the students needs to create a new post in the discussion about which I should buy for our class. I reminded them of the list of questions we generated and added the stipulation that they needed to include at least one fact and two opinions in their evaluation. The kids were so excited to do this, and I've been really impressed with the responses I've read so far.

Even with all the positives that I've observed and read I'm still scared. I feel very strongly that what I'm doing is going to prepare my kids for the their futures. But will that transfer to "the test"? There's a pile of papers in my backpack that will answer that question. Right now, I'm just too afraid to look.

Monday, October 11, 2010


We had an inservice day today. I don't dread them as much as I used to mainly because I have some say in what happens on those days. This morning was fantastic. There were new people working on my committee, and these individuals were more open to looking at alternate types of assessments rather than just making kids do paper / pencil tests. I left feeling really excited and pumped up about what we had accomplished throughout the morning.

My district is opening a new building next year. No small feat by any means, but this one is especially challenging because we are creating a new faculty out of people from 6 different buildings. Since August we have been working together to build a healthy culture for the building, and I have always felt very positive leaving those days. That all changed today. At the risk of venting, here are the things that are weighing on my mind and made today, in my opinion, seem more negative:

1. Teachers who complain that they don't have a voice but then complain that they just want somebody to tell them what to do.
2. Teachers who say that it's all about the kids but then talk about teaching configurations that will make less work for the adults.
3. Teachers who are just plain rude. If our students acted the way we acted today the same teachers who were talking would probably be the loudest ones flipping out.
4. Teachers who don't understand that building a good culture has to happen before we can decide upon schedules and teaching assignments.

Those were just my observations from the whole group, which were hard enough for me to work through on their own, but then I heard a side comment about me that really hurt. I've been really excited about what I'm doing this year. I thought I was just being a good colleague and sharing the things that are working well for me and the different activities I've found. Unfortunately the feeling among some is that I am a know-it-all who gets picked to do everything for one reason or another. That hurts. Really, really, really hurts.

I'm a teacher, a people pleaser. So any time somebody says something negative about me it bothers me. But this bothers me even more because I have specifically been trying NOT to be overenthusiastic to the point where I was pushy or being a know-it-all. I need to look back over my actions now and think: is this really something I've been doing, or is there another reason my coworkers feel this way.

While the day started out great, it did not at all end the way I thought it would. Time to reflect upon what I can do to positively impact the group without coming off in a pushy or all-knowing manner.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Interesting Confirmation and An Audience

We spent the day at my parents' house today, and I had a really serious, heated, LONG conversation about education with my parents. One of the things I've struggled with as I've jumped into my PLP work and started developing my virtual PLN is that I'm part of the choir, and I'm following the choir. How do we spread the word to others who aren't in education. Who better to start with than my parents, right?

My dad, who is a school bus driver now that he retired from his other job, confirmed something that I have been saying for a while now. People in this area don't want schools to change because kids will never be able to survive if they don't know how to do the things that we know how to do. My dad wants me to teach the basics first, and then once the kids get the basics I should move on to the harder stuff. He said something along the lines of, "Make them understand what they are doing, and then you can use all the technology you want. I don't want a bunch of stupid kids running around who can't do their jobs because their calculators and computers don't work!" News flash, Dad. They probably won't be able to do their jobs no matter how much they know because all of their jobs will be technology based.

We talked about many different aspects of education. My dad often focuses on kids being "bad" or acting like "jerks" so I think it was different for him to hear that there are reasons why these kids do bad or jerky things. I also tried to help him understand that the positives he is providing will not instantly undo the mess parents have created the last 10 years, but he's doing something. I could tell that there were several points with which we did not find common ground, but he and my mom were listening. That is what's important - somebody not in education was listening to me, seeing things from my point of view, and starting to consider education differently than they had before we talked.

This is what "the choir" needs to do. Whether we are teachers, administrators or parents, those of us in education who believe in change need to start talking. We need to find audiences, sit down and talk about what our kids need to succeed. This is the only way we are going to combat those who are "Waiting for Superman" and those who have nothing nice to say about teachers and public education.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Low Expectations?

I spent three years as an elementary technology teacher before returning to the classroom, first as a third grade teacher and now in fifth grade. The thing I appreciate most about the extra time as a "special" teacher is that I was really able to think about how I could use technology in the classroom, and since I've been back I really have tried to use technology often in the classroom.

I probably approach my tech integration like a lot of teachers do: teacher using the projector to show films and kids creating "final copies" in a word processor. Over the course of the last 3 years I've really tried to expand my horizons. I still show my Brain Pops and my videos from United Streaming, but here's a list of some of the other things I'm trying to do:

1. student research & collaboration in Google docs
2. movie editing
3. interactive simulations
4. podcasts
5. posting and commenting on our class wiki
6. video recording with iPhoto

These are all great things that the kids really enjoy, but the kicker about my list is that these are things I'm trying to do. Why trying, you ask? Because in the four years since I've been back in the classroom I have never had a spin with the laptops or in the lab where all of my students have been able to sit at a computer, log in and get right to work. There have always been log-in and connectivity issues. I don't blame my "tech guys" - they are 4 or 5 people trying to do a job that should be done by at least double the amount of people. I just assumed that this was the way things were going to be. Having problems is just part of using technology.

Until the other day, after another email about problems, I got an email back. The email ended with this sentence:

"Let me know if you continue to have trouble with things not working the way they should."

And that made me think (and respond with), "Can you tell me how exactly SHOULD things work because I don't know." I suppose I've always just had low expectations and assumed problems were part of life for a teacher trying to integrate technology. Maybe I was wrong about that. I haven't gotten a response to my reply yet, but it'll be interesting to see what the answer is.

How SHOULD technology work in school? Are problems always going to be a way of life?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Jumping In

Working with the Daily 5 has really got my paradigm shifted about how I teach communication arts. Having done away with worksheets, I have a lot more time to actually read with my kids and do some real world reading and writing. This is where the technology is starting to come in.

Since I came back to the classroom 4 years ago from being a technology teacher, my goal has been to use more technology as an instructional tool, as a tool for my kids, and as a communication tool. My first step beyond showing some BrainPop videos was to set up my classroom website. It is a tool where parents can find homework assignments and important information about what's going on in our class. My kids' also had their own pages linked to our class page, but during my first year I really didn't get a whole lot posted to those pages.

During my second year back I was able to manage keeping up with the parent information piece, and I was also able to post more of the kids' work on their website. These posts included typed pieces, podcasts and filmed readers' theaters, but it was kind of a pain. I use iWeb to create my classroom website, and since my computer is the host I have to do all the uploading of the kids' projects. Another big project my teammate and I attempted were movie projects using a combination of PhotoBooth, PowerPoint and the kids' written scripts. After writing and creating travel commercials for the planets, we posted the movies to our websites and linked up a Google spreadsheet so visitors could vote for their favorites. The kids were so excited to see who the winning team was, and I was thrilled with the fact that we had almost 100 votes for my class. Even with the extra time it took to do all the uploading and the loss of some pieces with the transfer from one computer to another, the parents loved being able to see the different projects. The website was becoming an important part of my communication, and the kids were beginning to see that there was a purpose to their work.

My third year continued along the same lines as the second year. I was still posting projects, but the projects were becoming more involved. I received 6 Flip cameras as part of a grant so the students were creating more videos. We completed a huge collaborative project for our Colonial America unit. Students had to complete a written project and a technology project that would answer at least one of the key questions for our unit of study. I was extremely pleased with how well the kids did, and I learned some valuable lessons (it started as an ABC project for the group and ended up on a much smaller scale due to time constraints) for this year. The kids used both the docs and presentation apps in Google, made movies, worked with Blabberize, and recorded podcasts for their tech projects. I was extremely pleased with how this and my other tech projects went last year, and I was looking forward to seeing what my next step would be.

The next step has ended up being the class Wiki, and I'm finally getting back to the opening of this discussion: a connection to the Daily 5 and jumping into real world reading and writing with both feet and no swimmies. The premise is that students learn to read and write by reading and writing, not by completing worksheets. Over the past week, my students have stopped bringing pencils to their reading groups. Some of them didn't even meet with their entire reading group; instead they met in smaller research and discussion groups. They spent time posting predictions and responses to our stories on the class Wiki, and then they had the opportunity to respond to their friends and ask questions. Have you ever had the opportunity to look around at a group of 22 5th graders and hear them say, "Hey, you have to check out Susie's post. It's really good!" Granted, some of the kids are still simply posting, "I like your response," or, "Those were good ideas!" But they are reading, they are writing, and they are thinking! And that is so exciting to me.

I'm thankful that I've had the opportunity, through PLP, to start learning how to use more tools and how to use more tools with my students. I know there will be some bumps in the road and it won't be easy, but I'm really excited to see how integrating technology will improve my students' reading and writing skills.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Finding the Balance

Just a few weeks in and I've already seen a lull in the action of my blogging, but it's because of a very interesting turn of events. For the first time in a long time, I feel really good about being a teacher. Even with all of the crap floating around about education, what is happening for me in my classroom and my district is pretty amazing. I have learned more about being a better teacher for my kids in the last 4 weeks than I have in the last 12 years. But this has come at a price.

When teaching is hard and things aren't going well, it's very easy to leave school at the door and focus on your personal life. But when things are going like they have been for me, it's almost like a drug. I couldn't stop. I would come home, work on school work, check in with my Twitter friends, comment on blog posts, and work on things for my classroom the next day. I was neglecting everything around me that wasn't teacher or school related.

I knew this was happening, but I sort of just pushed it to the back burner with a, "Oh, things are going so well. Once I get into the swing of things I'll be able to slow down a little bit and find a balance." Then this past Thursday happened. Two friends who live far away emailed me and said, "I haven't heard from you in so long. Have I done something to upset you?" I have done such a poor job keeping in touch with them that they actually were worried that they had done something to upset me. Talk about a slap in the face. And as I looked around the house I saw the mess that surrounded me, two doggies who were dying for some attention, and a husband who was in the same boat (although he would never say anything because it's just not his style).

I called this blog Teach 'N' Life because I know that in order to be a good teacher I need to take care of myself in every part of my life. I need to be healthy, I need to have fun, I need to exercise, I need to be a good wife, mommy to the puppies and friend. There is a very fine line between being a quality teacher and going out of control.

It's good to be excited, but as of October 1 I'm finding that balance. Time for school and all of the amazing things that are happening there, and time for home with the wonderful people and animals I love. A balance of those two is how I will be able to be the best teacher and learner with my kids.