Saturday, January 29, 2011

More Reasons to Have Kids Blogging

In preparation for doing progress reports I had my kids go back through all of their posts on our blog and their pieces in Google Docs and select the three pieces they felt were the best examples for the marking period. Each student completed a reflection sheet explaining where I could find the pieces, why they selected they selected them, how they have improved their writing this marking period, and a goal for the next. This weekend I sat down to grade all of their choices, and it has been an amazing learning experience for me.

Reason number one to get kids blogging? The sheer amount of writing that all of my students have completed is pretty incredible. Doing things the "old way" I was lucky to have the required three writing pieces at the end of each marking period. By allowing my students the freedom to write whenever and about whatever they wanted, with the exception of two assigned pieces per marking period, the writing practice has increased dramatically. Like I tell my kids every day, you would never expect to be a professional ball player without practice. Why would we expect writers to be any different?

Having an authentic audience has also caused my students to think more about their purpose. They aren't just writing because they "have to" for a grade. They realize that they are writing because they are communicating their ideas with other people, and I see them going back over their posts to make sure that everything is just right before they click that "Submit for Approval" button. Does that mean every post is edited to a polished perfection? Absolutely not. But my kids are recognizing that without editing others will not be able to read and respond, and everybody wants to be the person who logs in and finds comments on their blogs each morning.

The third reason is more about me than the kids, and it's the one that's been the most unexpected today. When faced with 22 students x 4 writing pieces per student (their 3 picks and our required marking period writing sample) my first thought was, "How am I ever going to grade 88 writing pieces today?" (Yes. I admit it. I am Chapter President of Procrastinators Anonymous. I prefer to say I work better under pressure.) But today has been different. I'm not reading 22 versions of the same 3 writing pieces. Sure, the kids selected some of the same assignments, but each and every child has given me some sort of twist. Not only have I read the 4 pieces needed for progress reports, I've spent the time going back and reading most of the posts on their blogs and their Google stories. The growth that my kids have shown is fantastic, and they recognized it when they shared how they have improved on their reflection sheets. In addition to the growth they've already made, each student also was able to give me a meaningful goal that they would like to work on to improve their writing during the third marking period.

I knew that getting my kids blogging would make writing more fun for them, but I wasn't sure what else it would mean to them. Now I see that they have taken their roles as real writers very seriously. They are all working very hard to learn the skills they need to communicate effectively with our newfound audience. So thank you - to everybody who reads this blog and reads and comments to my kids, THANK YOU! You have made a difference to my kids and have helped them see that writing is something more than just a skill we need for our PSSA tests.

Now, to put all of that into 1300 words or less on each child's progress report...

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What Happens When They Leave?

I've always felt that one of the hardest things about being an elementary teacher (sorry I can't speak for my secondary friends) is saying goodbye to "my" kids at the end of the year. Even with all of the switching throughout the day for various subjects, I become very close with my students and always pass them on with a bit of trepidation. Did I prepare them well? Are they confident enough to be successful? Will they be the good people I know they can be? These are the questions I ponder at the end of every year.

Today I had my mid-year conference with my principal. I got to show him all of the wonderful things I have learned through my participation with the PLP IU13 cohort like our class blog, our private class wiki, and some of the different things I have accomplished as I have been building my PLN on Twitter. He was very enthusiastic and excited about all that I was sharing, and he asked several great questions about how we can get more people to use these different tools. But then he asked me one question that stopped me in my tracks. I can't remember the exact wording, but he asked me something along the lines of, "So how do you feel about teaching your kids like this and then knowing they might not get to learn like this next year?"

This is a question that has popped into my head on several occasions, and I have very quickly shoved it right out. I am focusing on the opportunities I have right now to work with my kids and trying not to think about "what ifs" for the future. The future? I do not know if my current class will have these same learning opportunities as they move on to future grades. Nor do I know if I will have the technology resources available next year to teach my own class the same way I'm teaching this year. It's a scary prospect because I am seeing kids who are starting to love reading and writing, kids who are enjoying connecting with the world around them, kids who have some choices in their learning opportunities, and kids who are seeing the value of learning beyond filling in bubbles on a test.

Please understand, I am not commenting on the abilities of the teachers in the grades following mine. They are all amazing teachers, and they take wonderful care of the kids. But I'm starting to really look at my role and my students' educations very differently. Am I doing them a disservice setting up my classroom in a way that may not be replicated again for 1, 2, 7 or even 11 years? My gut tells me that kids are resilient, and many will adjust to a traditional classroom setting, but should they have to?

I throw this out to those of you who are and have been doing things differently in your classrooms. Whether it's a different behavior management system, different grading or instruction, the incorporation of self-directed or project based learning, or utilizing other types of web 2.0 tools. Do your students go back to traditional classrooms after they leave you, and if so how do they do?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

If You Could Build An Administrator

I have the very unique opportunity to be part of an entirely new faculty at a brand new intermediate school opening in my district this year. Since last year we have been asked to ponder the possibilities and think about how we would like this school to move us forward with how we teach and how we view our students as learners.

The next phase in this process is the selection of the principal, and today we were asked to share our thoughts on the qualities we would like to see in our new principal. That got me thinking. What are the qualities I most value in administrator? What are the qualities that would best help me grow as a teacher and learner? After some thought, I came up with this list of qualities and possible questions I would ask for each one:

Quality 1: Uses Technology - I need a principal who uses technology to develop professionally
Question 1: How do you use social media / online networking to develop your personal PLN? Which blog do you read or what one person do you follow on Twitter that you feel is most influential for your personal growth?

Topic 2: Understands Instruction with Technology - I need a principal who is familiar with how technology can really be used to help students learn, not just technology as glorified worksheets
Question 2: How do you see teachers utilizing technology in the classrooms at our new school to prepare our students for their lives today and the lives they will lead in the future?

Topic 3: Being Present Our Classrooms - I need a principal who comes to my classroom because he or she wants to see what's going not just because principals have to do observations
Question 3: How often should a principal be in the classrooms? With such a large building how to do propose you will make yourself a positive presence in the school for all of our students?

Topic 4: Supportive of Risk-Taking / Creativity / Thinking Outside the Box - I need a principal who supports and encourages all of these things and then helps teachers reflect upon their teaching
Question 4: A teacher (or team of teachers) approaches you with an idea of how they would like to change instruction based on what they have learned through their PLNs. This is a very different method of teaching, nobody else in the district is doing anything like it, and the teachers cannot currently say whether it will increase test scores. These teachers feel very strongly that this change is a sound teaching / learning strategy that will work for their kids. How do you handle this situation?

Topic 5: Able to Handle Difficult Situations - I need a principal who is able to make difficult decisions and is willing to support teachers in difficult situations (parent situations would be one example)
Question 5: Reflecting upon and learning from each day helps us to continue to grow as teachers and administrators. Tell about a difficult situation you had to handle during your time as an administrator that, upon reflection, you feel you may not have handled as well as you could have. What could you do differently the next time you were faced with this difficult situation?

Topic 6: Transparency - I need a principal who does not play games and is open and honest with everybody at all times.
Topic 6: The faculty of our new school has been working very hard to make connections and learn how to have difficult conversations. How will you continue to foster this community while encouraging its members to be transparent and have open, honest, difficult conversations when needed?

I'll throw this out to you. What do you believe are some of the qualities you need in an administrator to be able to grow as a learner and a leader?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

My Next Opportunity

When we return to school on Tuesday my student teacher will be joining me in the classroom. I am very thankful to have the opportunity to pass along my love and passion for teaching to somebody who is just learning the trade. This is not my first student teacher, but it is the first one in a long time. As I reflect upon my other experience I know I would like to be more present for this young learner.

As with every new opportunity, I'm nervous. On one hand I am worried that I will not provide her with the mentoring she will need to be successful on her journey. On the other hand I'm worried that I will overwhelm her with everything. Personally I am learning so much right now from my online venture. I want to expose her to this new world without going overboard and sending her screaming out the door.

So I ask you: what are your top suggestions for helping a student / pre-service teacher (not sure what this would be called elsewhere my non-United States friends) get the most from their experience? Obviously modeling my relationships and interactions with the students, reflecting upon why she teaches what she does and how she teaches those things, and being transparent with what I do in my classroom are important. But what other valuable suggestions do you have from your positive or not so positive experiences?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Great Geometry Idea ~ Thanks to my PLN

Over Christmas break I spent a lot of time trying to build up my online PLN through Twitter and blogs. I read this post by Alison Harper (@aliharper20), and I was really excited to give it a try during my geometry instruction.

To begin our geometry unit I talked with the kids about how geometry is a lot like reading. In reading you start with letters, put them together to make words, put words together to make sentences, and so on down the line. Instead of letters, in geometry we have basics like points, rays, lines and line segments. After the kids wrote the words and did some visual cues to review and look for at home we used Alison's idea and went on a scavenger hunt with the digital cameras. The students looked for our basics (in addition to those listed above we included plane, intersecting lines, parallel lines and perpendicular lines) all around the school. As the groups found the items the kids took turns using the digital camera to take pictures. Because I'm limited to 70 minutes for math and my kids come from 4 different classes, I uploaded the pictures to iPhoto and created a slideshow that included pictures from each group. I didn't include every picture because there were a lot of repeats and we have limited class time to review them.

Today, after reviewing our basics, we watched the slideshow. As with any movie, I let the kids watch the show one time through just to enjoy it and get thinking about the Geometry Basics. The second time through we stopped at each photo, and the students went to the screen and shared which basics they could see in the photo. The AH-HA moment came when the kids started saying, "Well we took this picture of this, but now I see there is __________ in the picture, too!" The next step was to post the slideshow on my class website (you can view it by clicking here if you'd like), and those students with Internet connections at home were invited to watch it with their families and teach them about the different geometry basics.

In keeping with trying to focus on WHY I am teaching things instead of WHAT am I teaching, my hope is that the kids will start to recognize the importance of geometry in their lives. Just through our scavenger hunt and photos we were able to see how important geometry must be to construction and design, and as we previewed angles today we realized that 360s aren't just tricks you do on a bike or skateboard. I'm excited to see how the kids continue to apply what they're learning to more advanced topics.

Thanks again, Alison Harper, for the great idea!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

How Do Assumptions Impact You?

The other day I read this post by Pernille Ripp, and it got me thinking about the assumptions I make on a daily basis.

Yesterday morning I slept through my alarm. I jumped up with a start and, knowing that we were forecasted to get 1 - 3 inches of snow, peeked out the window to see if there was ANY chance we might have a 2 hour delay. While a beautiful white dusting covered everything, it wasn't significant so I assumed we did not have a delay. I began my frantic dash to get to school on time. As I pulled up to the school one minute before my arrival time I was shocked to see an empty parking lot. My assumption was wrong. We had a two hour delay, and if I had simply taken a minute to check my phone, I would have known that it was not necessary for me to rush around in a panic to get to school on time.

This one assumption impacted me, and luckily I was able to use the extra time to get some good work done. But what about the assumptions I make that impact others and not in a positive way? It will be interesting to reflect upon my days and see exactly how those assumptions impact what I do in my classroom.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

My Rambling Reading Thoughts

I suppose the fact that I have thought, "Oh my gosh, I need to write about that on my blog!" about 15 times today means I'm a real blogger. So I will apologize in advance for these rambling thoughts, but I just have to get at least some of what is dancing around in my head out here.

Being part of the PLP team for my district has really made me think at length about the way I do things every single day. I think, for me, the biggest impact has come in terms of changing my thinking from, "What am I teaching today?" to, "Why am I teaching today?" There's no area where this thought process has been bigger than in my communication arts instruction. I was so very tired of teaching must-teach lessons from the manual, teaching to tests, and wasting my kids' time on meaningless worksheets, but I didn't know what to do and I was afraid to do anything different. "What if my kids don't pass the test?"

You know what, I don't care if my kids don't pass the test. Okay... I lie... I do care. Education had driven numbers so far down these kids' throats that it doesn't matter how much amazing progress they make (like going from reading 67 WPM at the beginning of the school year to 99 WPM with 99% accuracy now) they only know that they didn't make the goal and feel they are not good enough. So I DO care. I do not want to add to my kids' feelings of inadequacy. But I cannot spend one more day on lessons that have NO relevance to my kids' lives and make them hate reading.

Our current reading theme includes stories about the Revolutionary War so I selected 4 trade books focusing on the same theme, and I allowed the kids to pick which books they wanted to read. It made for some interesting groups. One group of 4, two groups of 2, and one group of 14, mixed abilities in most. Certainly not easier, but allowing the kids some choice is worth it. I sat down, read each book and created one question for each section to guide our discussion. The kids in each group are also responsible for developing questions to guide our discussions.

My AH-HA moment came while I was meeting with my two girls who selected the book Hope's Crossing. Their guiding question for the first three chapters was, "Is everything in war fair? Explain your point of view." Almost immediately the girls said no, but Miss A shared, "You know, this made me think of something my dad says. He always says 'It may not be equal, but it's fair,' and I never understand what he means." From that connection, Miss J grabbed a dictionary to look up the definitions of the words. Miss A said, "I've always thought those words were synonyms." I asked if she had ever checked, and with that she was off to grab a thesaurus. We talked about the definitions, how they were different, and some wonderful examples of things that were fair but not equal. We came back to the original question and wrapped up talking about how doing thing equally (an eye for an eye) was much different than being fair.

Not only did these girls have a wonderful discussion with me, but they took the liberty to do something completely different than the assignment I had given them. They went ahead and created a slideshow and were using each of the different reading skills and strategies we've learned to make a slideshow about their book to put on our website. Here's where I bring my rambling back around. I know in the past I would have said:

"Girls, that's really neat, but you didn't really do what I asked you to do so how about you finish your assignments and then you can work on that if there's extra time."

Because of what I have learned and how I am thinking differently, what I said was:

"This is awesome! Miss J, I am really impressed with how you identified the cause and effect relationships on your slide. You know what girls? You're showing me that you are using your reading and writing skills in a creative way so as long as you're prepared to discuss your guiding question, you go ahead and work through this book how you'd like. I can't wait to see what you do."

While the other groups didn't get quite as far into their books as these two did, several kids reflected upon the fact that they were not interested in reading a historical fiction book, but now it seems like the books are really cool and exciting. They can't wait to find out what's going to happen next.

And I can't either. I am so excited to see what Miss A and Miss J create, I'm excited to see what the other kids are reading and how they respond to each other on our wiki, and more importantly I can't wait to have our next book discussions. I'm not waiting for our next guided reading groups, I'm not waiting to see their next test score. I'm waiting to talk with my kids and read with them and see what they can teach me.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What a Word

I'm not sure why I picked the word opportunity when I selected it the other day; I had good reasoning behind the selection, but beyond that it spoke to me and I didn't know why. Well we are four days into the new year, and I already have a very clear picture of why opportunity picked me.

On January 2 my husband and I were presented with a very unique and interesting opportunity. Our first thought was to completely disregard it as outrageous, but after taking a few deep breaths and pondering the situation we are starting to consider it. We have a lot of time to think, learn, ask questions, and look at this opportunity from all angles, but there it was - laid before us two days into the new year.

Last evening we learned the terrible news that a family at our school had lost their home and all of their belongings in a fast moving fire. Thankfully the family and their young pet made it out safely. My school family (faculty, staff AND students) have taken this opportunity to help out the family in any way possible. It is difficult to put into words how lucky I am to be where I am. I have never in my life been part of a group who so selflessly gave to any family or coworker in need.

The kids truly filled my heart today. Without hesitation, each of the 5th grade classes brought up things that "us kids" could do to help out our classmate's family. From suggestions to donate books and toys, to ideas for fundraisers and making cards the kids had many ideas of how they could help. One student offered her grandfather, who does tree trimming, and the tree in their front yard to provide wood to rebuild the house. Two other students, knowing their classmate's strong faith, shared that they would like to buy her a Bible because she probably lost that in the fire with all of her other things.

Now that, my friends, is a meaningful lesson. It's a lesson that can never be measured by filling in a bubble on a test, but it will last far longer than anything that could be.