Wednesday, March 30, 2011

So Proud

We are 3/4 of the way through our state writing assessments. My kids completed a multiple choice section on Monday, a response to a writing prompt yesterday, and another one today. They have one more writing piece to complete tomorrow. This is hard for an 10 or 11 year old! Do you remember Double Dare? Are you familiar with the crazy physical challenges they used to have on this show? Well, I liken doing these writing assessment to a physical challenge for my fifth graders. I'm 36, and I find it impossible to sit in my seat and stay focused for more than 20 minutes. Yet here they are seated and hard at work for up to 2 hours and 15 minutes. Amazing!

I am writing this post to publicly state how proud, impressed, in awe of and amazed by my students I am. As I've looked at their work when they've finished (I can't help or give them any pointers to fix or change anything - I'm just nosy), I have seen writing pieces by 22 kids who are doing the absolute best that they can given their individual writing skills. I see kids who are taking their time, recreating and using our graphic organizer and writing process, writing in their best handwriting, and rereading finished products. Words can hardly express the way this makes me feel. Sure, I can teach the kids how to use correct grammar and capital letters. I can teach them how to use quotation marks and figurative language. I can teach them all sorts of magically words to improve their style. But on days like today, I can't make them use it.

That's something they have to do for themselves.

And over the past two days, they have all chosen to do just that. Use the strategies we've been practicing this year to the best of their abilities.

They have enough pride in their writing, thanks to many of you and the feedback that we've gotten on our blog, that they see themselves as good writers, and they want these unknown scorers to know exactly how awesome they are.

I'm extremely proud of my kids, and I tell them that over and over and over. I just wanted to let you all know it, too.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Step Back in Time

Just prior to testing we started our unit on Colonial America by taking a look at Roanoke and Jamestown. During those lessons I incorporated technology by giving kids the chance to do their own exploration of the theories behind Roanoke and try their hand at establishing a colony at Jamestown.

Our next focus was Plymouth and the Puritan settlements. Monday we read about the two settlements, but I felt like I wanted to do something more to bring it to life for the kids. Instead of going the technology route, I decided to take a step back in time. I did a little research and found some blurbs in kid language about the religion and children's lives in Puritan colonial settlements. Our school also happens to have 4 random wooden benches like you might find in a meeting house. With the help of my aide and my boys (the girls were up in arms about that, but they understood later on), the benches were brought to the room and set up facing each other.

I had the students get their graphic organizers, pencils and clipboards out, and I started reading the blurbs about Puritan life. As I read I got more and more strict until the students were frozen and completely silent. I then directed them to move to the benches where they sat, backs straight, hands folded except when writing, in silence, required to show no emotion, while we went over our work from Monday. Those students who were "sinful" (laughed, showed emotion, slouched, spoke) were sent to the hallway for their punishment. Since switches are not allowed any more, their punishment, handed out by my aide, was standing straight (no leaning against the wall), holding all of their materials, and no talking. Those who stayed in the room were shocked and startled when I started smacking the clipboards with rulers to get them to sit up straight, look straight ahead, and show no emotion.

It was a hard lesson for me; I hated being cruel and uncaring to my students, but I wanted them to try to get an idea of what school was like for these children. It was a hard lesson for the kids as well; I could see on their faces as they moved from shock, to thinking it was funny, to sadness and back to shock. Once we ended the simulation, I asked, "So, what did you think?" The first reply I got was from a student who had tears in her eyes. She looked at me and said, "That was hard. It made me appreciate what things are like today."

We had a great conversation and covered so many different topics:
- the differences between girls and boys during this time
- whether or not punishment works
- how different we would be growing up in an environment where you were not allowed to show emotions
- having the right to express oneself
- the irony of the Puritans traveling for religious freedom and then persecuting those who believed differently
- what it means to be a child
- individual rights
- how people of the same faith (Christianity) can believe different things about God (vengeful vs. forgiving)
- the consequence of speaking out against the group

There is NO way I could have ever planned a lesson to cover all of those topics. These ideas came from my kids during an open discussion where they could reflect upon our experience. What I saw today is that technology is grand, but you don't need technology for great learning to happen. What you do need is an opportunity for students to reflect, share their thoughts, and have a voice. That is when the true magic happens.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Learning...... Learning on Sunday Morrrrrrning

Okay, okay, I know - that was a cheesy title. Just be thankful you weren't here in my living room to hear me singing it! ;)

With the state of education today, I can pretty much expect to pay out of pocket for any events I would like to attend (like TedxNYED and potentially ISTE in June) so more and more I appreciate the wonderful PLN I have developed online.

Yesterday evening I participated in the #elemchat that focused on teaching students about digital citizenship. As always it was a wonderful discussion, and during that time Aviva (@Grade1) mentioned how she uses Evernote in her classroom. I had heard of Evernote, but as of last night it was on my "things to learn when I have time to figure it out" list. Several people asked Aviva to write more about how she uses it, and she did not disappoint.

Her top ten list of ways to use Evernote is extremely informative, and the comments that went along with it also showed me that I needed to move Evernote to the "let's do some learning on a Sunday morning" list. So while I was reading her post and the comments, I went and downloaded the software, signed up for an account, installed the clippers and got myself started. My PLN provided me with an opportunity to learn about something new and gave me specific ways to use it in my classroom. At no charge to me or my school district.

The best part of the whole experience this morning is that a coworker and I were just talking this week about how we would like to do our Daily 5 / CAFE data collection next year, and we talked about doing everything electronically. I have already shared Aviva's post with her, and I'm looking forward to seeing what we can create together. Thanks to my PLN I have a workable way to solve a problem I was pondering this week.

Getting information from people around the world, and trying out new things. Now that's what I call learning on a Sunday morning! Thanks, PLN!!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Today Was Hard

It seems as though every day in education is hard right now. With the current state of the economy, the labor disputes, the threats to reduce teachers' salaries to minimum wage, talk of furloughs across the country, the blame game being played by everybody and their cousins, and the "solutions" people have been touting... it's really challenging to focus on what's really important - our kids.

But that's what I do because it's what I MUST do. If I were to focus on all of the negatives, I would not be able to continue to do the only job I have wanted since I was 7 years old. And I have learned so much since the beginning of September that it has really energized me and made me realize that I truly can make a difference for my kids.

But today was especially hard.

Why? We started our state testing today. I understand the importance of data, but I despise the idea of putting so much emphasis on one day and one two hour block of time in my students' lives. And that's what this was. Nobody, as the scripted directions in the teachers' manual CLEARLY state, will be checking work or answers in the students' test booklets. The ONLY work that will be graded are those answers whose bubbles are neatly and completely filled in on the bubble sheet or written for the open ended responses.

So nobody will see that my kids who were having a hard time subtracting with regrouping at the beginning of the year actually worked through the entire long division process, they just made a fact mistake.

Nobody will see how students, who have a hard time remembering their multiplication facts, used their strategies to skip count or use touch points to get the answer correct, but then they rounded incorrectly for their estimate.

Nobody will see that my one student correctly wrote the number in expanded form but then picked the wrong multiple choice answer.

Nobody will see exactly how hard my students worked and how focused they were on trying to solve problems THAT HAVE ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH REAL LIFE!!!!!!!

That was the hardest part for me. After going through such a paradigm shift and trying to relate so much to my kids' lives, to sit there and watch them work tirelessly on problems that have no purpose or meaning to life just about broke my heart.

I'm so proud of my kids, and I told them so several times today. But I'm so very sad tonight. I know how hard they worked, I know they tried their best, and I know they used skills that they never thought they could do. But nobody else will see that. They will be one number. From three tests. On which they filled in bubbles neatly and completely.

Friday, March 11, 2011

My Best Ideas Are Often Borrowed From Others

A little while ago I was reading Pernille Ripp's blog (she's amazing - you really should check her out on Twitter @4thGrdTeach), and I read about this activity she did with her class. My team and I had just been talking about what we could do in addition to our daily spiral reviews to help our students review before the PSSAs. As soon as I read her post I realized that we could do something similar so I shared with my teammates, and we starting talking about what we could do.

Out of this collaboration was born Mission: Math-Possible (cue Mission Impossible music here!), a 2.5 hour math review activity. We reviewed the 5th grade anchors, talked about how our students had been doing in class and on our assessments, and determined that there were 7 different areas in which we needed some extra review. The students were put in 7 groups and moved between 7 different stations to review these skills in a variety of different ways.

We had 4 fifth grade teachers, 2 student teachers, and a laptop cart to make these seven stations possible. The activities included bingo, web-based pattern activities (you can see them here and here), designing a concert hall event, building solids, geometry Simon Says, an algebra race and a measurement activity. The kids really enjoyed the activities, and we even heard such unsolicited comments like, "Huh... I didn't remember learning that. Good thing we talked about it," and, "This is REALLY cool!"

The comment that got me thinking the most was from one of my boys. He looked at me and said, "This was really fun. Why can't math always be this much fun?" Sure the warm and fuzzy was there, but the second part of his question is the part that is sticking with me. How do I make THIS my math class all the time? How do I give the kids short lessons and big projects where they can apply the skills we're learning? I won't say that these were exactly real-life situations, but the kids had to use the skills to solve problems. THIS is what I want my math class to look like all the time because THIS is problem solving -- not those cheesy questions about leprechauns and trolls, or tickets, or putting 4 cards in different orders.

But how do I change my math class? Changing things up in communication arts and social studies comes naturally, but it's exactly the opposite in math. And in this age of test scores, proficiency, and leaving no kids behind, what happens if my experiments to teach differently and in a more meaningful way actually leads to poorer scores? I need to make sure that I do this correctly so that I don't have to go back to doing things the way I've done them in the past.

I feel great about what we did today. It was a baby step, but it met our purpose, and I hope the kids are feeling more confident than they were when we started. Now I need to continue this change. The question is where can I go to learn how to do math differently? Anybody have any suggestions?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Reflections on TEDxNYED

On Saturday, March 5 I had the pleasure to attend TEDxNYED, and I have had several people say to me, "I can't wait to hear what you've learned this weekend!" As I sit here reflecting upon the presentations I heard and trying to write this post, I have to say I'm not sure that I learned anything new in terms of the "stuff" most classroom teachers might expect: ideas, handouts, websites, and the like. Rather than getting "stuff" I got 15 individuals' take on what education needs to look like for our kids to be successful in the future; they all shared their 15 minutes to change the world.

So what DID I get from my day on Saturday?

I got affirmation. I may be "just a teacher" (Brian Crosby and I had a conversation about this, and I think it will need to be my next blog post), but I am thinking about the same ideas and feeling the same feelings that are being presented by this amazing group of speakers. And I am the one who has the power to do something with my students in the classroom.

I learned about relationships. As I'm sitting here typing this I watched a short piece on the local news about how technology is negatively impacting face to face interactions. But on Saturday I heard many, many examples of how technology does not dehumanize. Instead it allows students to create caring, collborative relationships with others around the world. Hopefully this connected generation will be the one that can look past home-grown stereotypes, develop meaningful relationships, and leave a legacy that will make a positive impact on the world.
Check these talks when they are posted: Alan November, Homa Tavagar, Lucy Gray, John Ellrodt & Maria Fico, and Brian Crosby

I got a first hand look at the power of kids. Our system continues to perpetuate the notion that adults have the knowledge, and kids need to get it from us. This is just not the case any more. The kids can get their knowledge whenever and where ever they want to so schools need to be about something else. On Saturday I got reaffirmation that there is value in every single student, all students can capitalize on their strengths, and we need to help the kids recognize that they have a voice and can make a difference.
Check these talks when they are posted: John Ellrodt & Maria Fico, Kiran Bir Sethi (a TED talk), Diana Laufenberg (a TEDxMidatlantic talk), and Dennis Littky

I developed some realization. I now understand that we need to stop talking to each other, and we need to start talking to people outside of education. We need to get the message out that our students are more than just numbers on a test. Diana Laufenberg talked about this after we walked her talk, and a member of my PLN who was not in New York talked about it yesterday here in his blog. It is up to us: the teachers, the students and the administrators to stand up and help ourselves because nobody is going to do it for us.
Check these talks when they are posted: Diana Laufenberg (a TEDxMidatlantic talk) and Morley (you can also find her on iTunes!)

I gained understanding. This is not about tweaking what we are already doing; instead it is about doing something totally different. I hate to be cliche, but beating the dead horse is not going to make it work harder. It's just going to keep it dead. Innovation does not mean letting kids use computers to take their multiple choice tests; it means doing things in a whole new way. We're at the point now where we can't reform what we're doing. We need a whole new system to prepare our kids for their lives.
Check these talks when they are posted: Gary Stager, Heidi Hayes Jacobs, and Will Richardson

There were several other wonderful speakers, and I recommend that when the presentations are posted you take some time to watch each of them. As a teacher you may not get concrete activities that you can use in your classroom, but I guarantee that you will gain so much more.

Saturday, March 5, 2011


And I'm not even talking about TEDxNY yet. Don't worry, that post is coming. There's something else I need to talk about first.

I was terrified to go to New York City by myself, so much so that even with all the money for the tickets and reservations I almost didn't go. But I knew I would kick myself if I didn't so I put on my big girl panties, hopped on the train, and headed towards the big city. Thanks to my dear friend's sister I had a hotel that was extremely close to the conference site so once I got to my hotel Friday night I knew I would be okay. After a slightly nerve-wracking subway excursion, I climbed the steps right in front of my hotel and the World Trade Center memorial site.

Even though I had read the information about the hotel, the magnitude of where I was didn't really become meaningful until this morning. I got up, opened the curtains and looked out over the construction site where the Twin Towers used to stand. And that's when it hit me. There used to be two towers right here that were over 100 stories high. One day in the not so distant past somebody had stayed in this hotel, and as they were getting ready for that morning (just like I was today) a plane had hit the building right across the street. Thousands of people had lost their lives. The enormity of these thoughts took my breath away.

Several people commented to me that it was a shame that I wasn't staying long enough to do any sight-seeing, see a show or eat at any of the fancy restaurants in the city. What I gained this morning was so much more meaningful than any of that. While I can't accurately express what I thought and felt as I looked out over the memorial site and reflected upon the events of September 11, I do know that I am very lucky to have had the chance to, in my own little way, pay respect to those who lost their lives that day.

The fact that I also got to attend a pretty incredible conference is just the icing on the cake.