Sunday, December 30, 2012

My One Little Word

I've been going back and forth between a couple of different words, and as I was reading a few posts about One Little Word a few other contenders popped up. But as I thought more and more about it every word was speaking to me because it had a common theme, one of my original words.

After it appeared in many different ways my One Little Word for 2013, at the risk of appearing a bit selfish, is


Doesn't seem to quite fit the spirit of One Little Word, does it? Maybe not at first glance, but it makes a lot of sense to me.

As I reflected back upon everything that has happened in 2012 I saw many things I couldn't control, situations where I had no voice. As that happened I stopped speaking up. And when I did there were many times where people told me my perceptions of their actions were wrong when it was just a different way of looking at things. I put my happiness and the things that I wanted and needed second (or third or fourth or even fifth) to the happiness and needs of others. Or I disconnected. I could have said something but didn't. I could have reached out but kept things inside. I did what made others happy even when it made me unhappy. And I based too much of my worth on comparisons with others instead of simply looking into myself and seeing my own accomplishments.

What I realized as I was trying to pick a word is that each word I was considering spoke to me being true to myself. Of me finding the person who has gone away. To me being better for me so that I can be a better wife, daughter, friend, sister and teacher.

So as selfish as it may seem to somebody not wearing my size 11s, 2013 is going to be about focusing on me and everything that I can accomplish once I do that. I'm not exactly sure what that will look like, but I am excited to find out.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Good Riddance, 2012

2012, I'm going to be blunt: you sucked. I thought 2010 was tricky, and then 2011 showed up. 2011 was awfully challenging, but then you showed up. 2012, you made those past two years look like a walk in the park with everything you threw our way.

Don't let the door hit you in the butt on the way out, 2012.

I decided to deal with all of 2012's challenges by throwing myself into all of my work: at school, online, in helping Jerry. It was go, go, go, go, go, until I just couldn't go any more. And then I kind of just gave up. I did what I absolutely needed to, and that's about how I've gotten through this past month or so - doing just what I absolutely had to so that I could get by. Hence my long absence from this little blog. And my absences from lots of other things, too, even if I actually was present in those places.

It's time for a fresh start. So let's look back, shall we? I promise to look through the forest of negatives and find the positives of this year. My one little word for 2012 was grow. I picked that word because I thought my husband and I were going to be growing up, taking over the business, and growing everything that he had worked so hard for. Instead, I grew in lots of other ways:

- My teammates and I grew when we decided that the teaming structure at our school was not in the best interests of our kids. While teaching two subjects made less work for the teachers, the constant switching was making it really difficult for students who needed consistency and structure. We researched, we presented, we talked, we shared, and we stuck to our guns even when we were bullied and treated like the bad guys. Thanks to our perseverance our students are growing in more ways than we saw last year, as are our relationships with them and their families.

- More opportunities for online coaching allowed me to grow by helping me connect to new people and learn new ideas. This growth has come with a challenge. The more I learn, the more I feel like we are doing a disservice to our students with our regimented, meaningless curricula and overwhelming, unnecessary assessments. But how to change? I do what I can in my classroom, but I need to do more. This is the challenge! I need to continue to grow to figure out what else I can push my district to offer to our students.

- People lying and being deceitful has made me grow personally. There have been so many times where I wanted to stoop to their level. I can't tell you how badly I wanted it. But I didn't, and the reason I didn't was my husband. Despite everything that was said and done, he handled himself in such an amazing way. He was the calm lake to my crackling flame, and his calm, cool demeanor most days is what kept me in line. This continues to be an area of growth for me; there are still days where I would love to just go in there and tell them all exactly what I think of them. Something tells me it's going to be an area of growth for a long time.

- I grew as an author. I have had several posts on Voices, started a series at Middleweb (which I do promise to finish) and was honored to be selected as part of PLPress's first book.

- While I expected Jerry and I to have to grow up as we took over one business, we ended up growing up in many other ways. We've had to deal with the change to a one income household, to work through the emotions of the loss, disappointment and anger, to continue to deal with the disappointment of losing his legacy and connection to his dad (they worked together at the old business for several years), to talk through the uncertainties of starting a brand new business, and to get through a huge amount of "together time" as we've come to call it. We're still growing, and again - I think we'll be at it for a long time.

- I'm a helper. You need anything I'm there, and I've got your back. Funny thing is that as good as I am at helping others, I really stink at asking for or accepting help myself. Since September I've needed to grow and get used to accepting others' help whether I like it or not. I had two huge health situations (bacterial pneumonia and a severe bacterial infection in my large intestines) that rendered me pretty much incapacitated. My friends, you just can't do sub plans from the emergency room - that's a fact. I depended upon my teammates to help me out, and while I don't like causing other people extra work and am still looking for ways to repay the two of them, I realize that I can't do it alone. I think we all need help every now and then, and it's okay to ask for it when you need it.

- Sadly, I feel like I've also grown a little sadder and a little harder. I'm a hugger - always have been. But lately, I haven't felt so much like handing out hugs (well, except to my kiddos of course - they'll always get hugs freely!) or spreading much cheer. Normally a positive person, I find that I've grown to expect the negatives from people instead of the positives; I've grown into myself instead of reaching out to others. As GI Joe used to say at the end of his cartoons, "And knowing is half the battle." I know I've changed. I know I've grown in ways that I don't really like. I suppose now it's time to do something about that.

And that is 2012 in a nutshell. There truly were a lot of positives, but every positive seemed to have a hint of negative splashed over it. So that why I'm ready for 2012, and all of the negativity, to just be gone.

Grow could easily be my word for 2013, but in keeping with the whole idea of a fresh start I definitely need to pick a new word. I have a few that I'm batting around, but I haven't made the official decision yet. I'm sure it will come to me sometime in the next three days.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

How Gaming Can Help Us

Once again this year I'm participating in the PLP experience, this time as a coach rather than a participant / team member. Even though I'm coaching this time around, I'm already learning so much from my teams.

One of the things that I have heard so much about, but didn't really understand, was the whole idea of gaming being a new venue for learning. Having watched my husband spend hours playing a variety of different games, I can certainly see the problem solving and the perseverance needed to win a game. But I didn't exactly see how that could fit into education. The other day one of my teammates started a discussion about gaming in the classroom, and I asked what skills and resources teachers would need to make this transformation. While we haven't come to a consensus about that just yet, she did share the title of Jane McGonigal's SXSW talk, and I very quickly googled it. If you have 20 minutes, and it would be well spent, you can watch it here:

 My biggest takeaways from her talk were:

  • Gaming encourages us to be our best selves. 
  • Gaming encourages us to get up after failures and try again.
  • Games give us a specific task to complete that it just at the very top of our ability level. We may need to work hard, but we can accomplish the task.
  • Games give us a ton of collaborators right at our fingertips. 
  • Games provide us with constant positive feedback, rewarding us with leveling up and +1 in the skills where we have developed and grown.
  • Games allow people to believe that they are individually capable of saving a world.
That's a pretty meaningful list right there, and it made me think of one huge question:

Do we do ANY of that for our kids when they show up for school?

My answer? I don't think we do. I think we focus way too much on failures, we train kids to think that collaborating is cheating, and we teach them that there is one score on one test that will determine everything about you for the next learning year.

What kind of people are we creating? Are we creating kids who will grow up into creative, brave, inventive risk-takers beyond the walls of their X-boxes and PS3s? Or are we creating a group of people who sees how good they can be in a virtual world but see themselves only as failures in real life?

I'm still not sure where I stand on gaming in the classroom - perhaps the teacher in me just needs a little more time. But I look at my list of takeaways from this talk and I do say to myself, "THAT is the culture I want in place in my classroom."

What do you think?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Personal Struggles

Since the middle of August I've been feeling more and more like my philosophical beliefs about educating children are fitting in less and less with my building's beliefs and the beliefs of education in general. A few of the things I've been struggling with include:

  • spending 3 hours data mining and determining students' specific reading skill needs, only to be told exactly what skills I will teach and exactly when I will teach those skills during the school year
  • spending a year learning how to make a research based, developmentally appropriate word study program work for my students, only to be told that we need to "get them through" a certain number of sorts each marking period so they can be considered proficient. Oh - we were also told that if we want the kids to meet those goals we might have to cut out or skip parts of the program. 
  • focusing on having a growth mindset, but then forcing students with disabilities to take grade level common assessments rather than allowing them the opportunity to take assessments on their level to demonstrate learning and growth because we're required to show grade level growth
  • trying to reconcile my personal beliefs and understanding of "standards based reporting" with the district's definition / model of a standards based report card
  • dealing with teachers who call kids "clueless" and believe that they are not as capable as other students
  • working with people who make it their business to undermine every attempt that is made to do what's right for kids
  • trying to develop a professional working dialogue with individuals who are not interesting in considering or putting any ideas into practice if they aren't their own
  • understanding how we refuse outside support services for students who desperately need them 
I have wanted to be a teacher since I was seven years old. I set my stuffed animals in a row of one room schoolhouse desks my great-uncle got for me, and I taught them using my little fold up chalkboard. Teaching is all I have ever wanted to do. 

But as my personal beliefs about meeting the needs of the whole child, about seeing a child not just as a test-taker but as a social, emotional human being, have grown, I find myself growing farther and farther away from what we are doing in my building and in public education here in the US. It becomes harder and harder for me to just say it is what it is and do these things to kids, and it has made me very unhappy. And my heart is feeling like it is impossible for me to make any meaningful changes where I am right now.

I'm not sure where I would go or what I would do, but I'm just not sure public education is the place for me any more.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Lost At Sea

These days I often find myself comparing my job as a teacher to the popular show Deadliest Catch. If you've never seen the show before, it follows the captains and crews of crab fishing vessels in the Bering Sea. How I can compare life as a teacher with life on a crab vessel? Some days you sail along on a beautifully calm sea, everything going your way and then BAM! There are stormy waters, you're being tossed about in the gigantic waves, and you're wondering if you'll ever be able to right your ship and sail on to your intended destination.

I'm currently in the tossed about / lost as sea part of this comparison, and I'm hoping some of the wonderfully knowledgable members of my PLN will be able to help.

There are several different things that have me floundering and adrift. The first is the fact that we are just about 6 weeks into the school year, and my kids are still struggling to get into the routine of doing school. We have seven specific jobs they're responsible for as they come in each morning, and most of them are just your general, be ready for the day type things that take all of a minute or two to finish up: attendance, unpacking, stashing stuff in lockers, bathroom breaks, sharpening pencils, picking new Read to Self books and a quick 5 question morning assignment. Everybody has at least 15 minutes to finish this and some have 30. These jobs are listed on a reminder chart we made and hung on the wall, each student has their own checklist on their desk, and as I'm greeting my kids at the door I'm giving verbal reminders. Even with these reminders in place and the relative ease of the tasks, my kids just aren't getting them done. It may not seem like a big deal, but each day as soon as I start teaching, kids are trying to get up to sharpen pencils, asking to go to the bathroom, and asking to get something out of their locker. As we're getting ready to do our Read to Self, they are trying to pick new books. I say now when I can, but whether I say no or they need to do it, all of these things steal learning time.

Am I missing something? It's not like these are assignments the kids can't connect to - they are just the jobs we need to do to be ready for the day.  Even so, I feel like I have done something wrong, like I have made a mistake. I feel like my extended absence due to pneumonia may have created this problem  and my trip to Philly to participate in PLP Live made it worse. I blame myself for not providing the consistency they needed to get into this routine. And now I'm not sure how to turn them around.

The other thing that has me floundering is that many of my kids struggle with focusing issues. Please don't think that I mean I expect my kids to be sitting in their seats, hands folded neatly and listening quietly to me for 6.5 hours a day. I really do understand that these are 9 and 10 year olds. We transition often, as in every 10 - 15 minutes, from chairs to the floor, from teacher directed class lesson, to group work to independent work. We face the front of the room, we face the back of the room. Kids can choose where to work. They can sit or stand at their desks, sit or lie on the floor. There is a lot of movement in my room to give my kids breaks, and we do lots and lots of different activities. I'm also making a conscious effort to tie my students' interests into the work that we are doing in class.

It almost seems like since I have taken them out of their seated in rows, be quiet except at recess scenarios, that they have lost all control. They're constantly trying to make faces at each other, to whisper *loudly* to each other across the room, to do silly things to get under each other's skin. We review our routines - they know what to do, yet they struggle to actually do it. I feel like I have failed them because I can't plan activities to engage them, and I can't give them the strategies they need to stay focused, work together, and complete their tasks.

I'm making it seem like these storms are happening all the time, and I know that's not true. I've seen discussions between partners and groups in science, math, social studies and language arts that make my heart pitter patter from happiness. But it's hard to remember those placid days when so many 60 foot waves are whipping up and slamming your boat from every side.

We sat down as a class today, and we talked about it. I explained how I was feeling (figured it would be a great idea to model the I Statements I'd like them to use), and I asked the kids what suggestions they had to solve these problems. I think this may have made me the saddest of all. The only suggestions I got? Punishments:

  • pull cards
  • names on the board with checkmarks
  • taking away recess
  • taking away tickets or chips
  • moving sticks
I jumped in after these suggestions and many more and talked about the fact that these were all punishments, things I would do AFTER they made the wrong choice. I shared that I'm more interested in strategies that would help kids do the right thing in the first place. Did the kids have any ideas of strategies we could use that wouldn't be punishments? They didn't, but at least they could chime in with a, "Oh, that's a punishment." I lie. There was one that wasn't a punishment: getting a prize for earning all the marbles in a marble jar. 

So I'm not sure where to go from here. My kids are good kids; their behaviors are not mean or spiteful, but dealing with the behaviors is costing me a lot of instructional time. I really do not want to have to start an antiquated, punishment based, embarrassment... I mean management system, but I'm not sure what else to do. I want to continue to try and implement student focused lessons and choices throughout my day, but I feel like maybe that freedom is causing the problem. Or maybe something else I'm doing is causing the problem. Is it just growing pains? Will we eventually get there? Is there something I'm missing? Is it me?

Help me out friends. Talk to me about what you're thinking after reading from an outsider's perspective. I'm seriously drifting this Friday evening.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

PLPLive 2012

Over the last two days I had the extreme honor to be part of PLP Live 2012. This was my first time being a facilitator at a conference, and it was a pretty wild experience. Even though I haven't been to many conferences (three total in my 15 years - not that I don't want to do more, but it's often not in my budget) it's pretty easy to take a guess at the tremendous amount of work required to pull off even a one day affair. Kudos to both Brenda and Peter, whose hard work helped this day go off without a hitch.

I suppose I have to first mention how starstruck I was to be part of this group of people, and on several occasions while we were mingling, talking, and having dinner, I thought to myself, "How does a 4th grade teacher end up here with these people?" I don't mean to belittle myself by saying I'm *just* a 4th grade teacher, but really - experienced conference coordinators, innovative thinkers, foundation presidents, authors, community voices, well-written bloggers, national board certified teachers - these people are b-i-g deals, in my mind and in the minds of many others. From their formal keynotes to the informal discussions we had I was able to learn so much. And it reinforced what I have really been thinking about for the last few months: we really need to change the way we do things in schools.

(Edit added 9/29 at 11:10 PM - so after posting this and thinking more about a conversation I had this morning, I think I get it. I can see how *just* a 4th grade teacher fits into this group. These are amazing philosophers and thinkers, but that's just it - they are philosophers and thinkers. A majority of them aren't teachers or principals or if they are they haven't been in the classroom for years. So they can do all the talking they want, but really, this big change, this shift? That is up to us. Those of us who are *just* teachers are really the ones who are going to take their words and actually put it into action. How's that for a crazy revelation?? They can inspire us with their words, but without our action there will be no change. Makes us a lot more than *just* teachers, doesn't it??)

The second thing I loved about this conference was the format of our session. I was part of a fabulous team: Marsha, Gene, Sister Geralyn and Wendy, that created a series of stations that actually gave teachers some concrete ways that they could take the motivational keynotes they heard in the morning and put them in to practice in their classrooms. The beauty of the Minds on Media approach is that I wasn't the expert, and I didn't stand up in front of the group to tell them what to do and how to do it. Attendees were free to move through our five stations at any time or they could skip our stations and explore a topic of their interest. They could listen in on a conversation and then go work with their team to figure out what it would look like in their classrooms. It's a very freeing experience to be trusted with your own learning, and the participants ran with it. If you couldn't be at the conference with us the wiki pages will remain up for you to learn from if you'd like!

I was lucky enough to work with three different groups, all of which had very different needs. Our first group didn't even get to the wiki - our philosophical discussion helped people think about the purpose of e-portfolios, how they fit into the big picture of shifting, ways we could do e-portfolios differently than we did in the past to make them more meaningful, and baby steps we could all take to get started if we didn't want to dive right in. The second group came to me after visiting Wendy's station about connecting your classroom so they had a lot of very specific questions about melding the connecting piece with the idea of a portfolio. The third group I saw was already using some tools so we just had to talk through how they might morph what they were doing into a portfolio by adding a reflective piece. I learned so much with each group, and our discussions helped me think more deeply about why I do what I do with my students.

So those things were great, but they were not the best part of this conference. By far, the best part of PLP Live was being able to meet the absolutely incredible people that I have been learning from and with over the last two years. People often ask if it's really possible to develop relationships with people that you only ever speak to online. I reply to that with an absolute, resounding, 100% yes. From the moment we walked into the room together it was like we had known each other forever, and the comfort level made it very easy for all of us to work together as a team to get things done and to have really challenging discussions about our next steps.

It was a great opportunity to be able to take part in this conference, and I'm hoping that I can continue to take all that we did and all that I have learned being a PLPeep back to my classroom to make meaningful changes for my students.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Lessons from NASA

I think I probably took the same stance many did when they heard the agency was shutting down the space shuttle program. At first I was shocked - I know there have been accidents, but overall (in my layman's eyes) it's been a very successful program. It's our only method of getting people and supplies in to space. We will now have to depend upon others for transportation to the International Space Station. And my last thought was that it's a shame our government isn't willing to spend the money on such an important program.

While I'm not a space junkie, I do find space travel intriguing. I did stay up late  to watch the online stream of Curiosity land on Mars, and yes - I do follow Curiosity on Twitter. I would say it's an interest of mine, but not necessarily a passion.

But it's interesting enough that I stop and read a few articles every now and then. As I browsed through my reader this morning I saw Laura's post (and the others in her series) about the final flight of Endeavour. These posts really made me wax nostalgic about my elementary school experiences. Some of my favorite, and one of my saddest, elementary memories were cramming as many classes as possible around the TV and watching the shuttles blast into space. I also read this post by Pamela Moran, and it reminded me of a message that I have heard before. NASA is scrapping the shuttle program, not because it doesn't work but because it's time to move forward. And we in education need to do the same thing.

But schools aren't like NASA. We can't just shut down our program  for 2, 5 or 10 years until we find what works or what our kids need. So what do we do?

First, I think we educators need to look at our attitudes and stop being so ridiculously offended when somebody tells us it's time to try something different. It may not be that you're doing something "wrong" (although some of you are, I will go ahead and say that even if nobody else will!) it's just that our kids need more.

NASA didn't get rid of the shuttle because they didn't work - they worked beautifully most of the time. They did exactly what they needed to do. Our schools are the same way. When we were preparing some of our kids for college and most for factory work, our schools worked beautifully and did exactly what we needed to do. But that's not the case any more. We need to stop being offended that people want us to change, and look more closely at how our students are different than kids used to be and how their adult lives will be dramatically different than the ones we're living today.

Second, we need to get administration in our buildings who are actual leaders with a vision and plan to move us forward. We need individuals who are more than people who took some classes, got a paper with their name on it, and had the desire to be the boss in a big fancy office. If leadership is not willing to change the way they work with teachers, model for teachers how schools need to change, and hold teachers accountable for implementing change, then small pockets of innovation will exist here and there, but our system will continue to be stagnent.

NASA had leadership who was brave enough to stand up and say, "This is the end of the shuttle program. We have a new focus now." If those in charge didn't have the courage to make an extremely unpopular decision in the eyes of most, our space program would just continue to be the 1-800-Got-Junk of space exploration. (Not that there's anything wrong with people who come in and haul your junk for you, I just don't think it's where we want to go with our national space program.)

Third, we need to stop teaching to tests. All we are doing is creating a population of small, anxious, stressed out human beings who things their world does and will always revolve around filling in bubbles. By 9 years old, my kids are already telling me it's cheating to look at resources to help you answer questions, it's cheating to talk with people when you don't understand and need help to finish some work, and it's cheating if you can't do everything from your memory.

While I have never been to a NASA facility, I did watch the livestream of Curiosity's landing. Not a single individual in that room was working on his or her own. While they each had their own monitor and seat, each report that was made came from a team. Each piece of data was being monitored by a team. And when the vehicle landed, no one single person stood out (well, except maybe Mohawk Guy); the success was felt by every single individual in that room. Those people didn't sit on their own and fill in bubbles, they worked together to solve problems that had never even existed before! They were creative and took a leap of faith using their knowledge and skills in the hopes that something amazing would happen. And it did.

I know it's impossible for schools to shut down and totally revamp how we do our work. But if each teacher would start making small changes in his or her classroom, if each district would reach out to those who would be effective leaders, and if each parent would be willing to move on from their love of how school worked for them when they went, we may be able to take some lessons from NASA and move from a good program that worked in the past to one that is really meeting the needs of our kids.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Negative Patient Service = A Better Teacher

After several days of being knocked on my behind due to pneumonia, I am finally starting to feel a bit like my normal self. And I want to share how this experience has made me think about how I want to do things differently for my students.

I started not feeling quite right on Sunday evening, but I attributed it to a tough workout on Friday and the appearance of chilly weather after several long weeks of it being hot and humid. I figured a nice hot bubble bath and calling it an early night would do the trick. I was kind of right - I felt better Monday morning, but as the day went on I started to feel worse. By the time I finished my walking path duty (a duty where we escort our walkers about 1/2 mile on our walking path) I was ready to go home and go directly to bed.

Usually when I get sick, it's allergies, a cold, or the ever popular sinus infection. I can't tell you the last time I had a fever of 100 or higher, and I always have the same types of symptoms - stuffy, stuffy head and a scratchy throat. I suppose I'm a creature of habit. This time was different. I was achy, I didn't want to eat or if I was hungry when I did eat it made my stomach hurt, and I started to have a cough. But no sore throat, no runny nose, no congested head. This just wasn't right, and that was confirmed when I woke up Tuesday morning with a fever of 101.3.

After throwing together some stuff for my sub, I left school and while still sitting in my car in the parking lot I called my doctor to get an appointment to be seen. My guess was the flu, but I just wanted to get checked because I have a student with special health needs in my class. I was promptly told by the very nice phone receptionist that there were no appointments available, but I could leave a message for the doctor. I went through the whole story, and I emphasized that I don't get fevers - something was wrong and I really needed to be seen. She apologized but repeated that there were no appointments and the doctor would get back to me as soon as he had a chance.

I went home and went right to bed. I could tell as soon as the Advil wore off, and my fever was still 101.1. More Advil, more aches, and I tried calling two more local doctors' offices to see me. Both had appointments available, but because I would be a "new patient" I couldn't have those appointments because I would need more time. Perhaps I would like an appointment for Thursday or Friday, or I could go to their clinic, a 25 minute drive from my house, because that's where they sent most people with colds.

To say I was frustrated when I hung up the phone doesn't even begin to describe it. *I* know myself. *I* know there is something seriously wrong, and the people who were supposed to be helping me weren't listening. Back to bed I went wondering if it was maybe time to head to an Urgent Care facility. The decision actually ended up being made for me. After taking my next dose of Advil and sitting in on an online meeting, I took my temperature and it was 103. I called my mom, a nurse, and asked her what to do. In her always loving mom voice she said to me, "Get your ass in the car and let Jerry take you to Urgent Care."

We pulled into the parking lot of the Patient First facility at 8:20. I signed in, and the receptionist immediately got my information. I finished with her and waited approximately 2 minutes before the assistant took me back. Each person I interacted with asked me lots of questions, talked with me, showed care and compassion, made sure I was as comfortable as possible, and answered my questions. As you read up above, I ended up being diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia. Just knowing that I was right - there WAS something wrong - helped me start feeling better immediately. After having my concerns pushed aside all day, the staff at Patient First did exactly what their name said and took great care of me. If it hadn't been for them (and my mom's sound advice) who knows what might have happened.

I've spent a lot of time sleeping, coughing, and thinking the last few days. While being so sick certainly was upsetting and worrisome, the fact that the "professionals" weren't listening to me made me feel ten times worse. 

I wonder how often kids know there's something wrong - they know which letters don't look or sound right, they could tell us which part of the math problem doesn't make sense, they could tell us which parts are hard to understand - but we teachers don't listen to them. I fear that often times, in the spirit of "cram as much down their throats so they are ready for the test", we don't listen to our kids when they try to tell us what is wrong or we don't even give them a chance to speak at all.

So here's another way that my life experiences are going to help me be a better teacher. Whether it gets me in trouble or not, I will make the time to listen to my kids. I'm going to expect that we be partners in their learning, I will ask them what's making the work challenging, I will listen to their answers, and I will work with them to help them feel better and be successful.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

My Open Letter to our Local News Station - WGAL

Dear News Director,

I'm a public school teacher, and I just had the opportunity to watch Matt Belanger's piece on educators being paid for their sick days. I have to tell you that I am 100% offended by this piece, and I'm hopeful that there will be a follow up piece sharing teachers' perspectives.

I have seen many, many reports in papers, online, and on live newscasts claiming how unfair it is that teachers' benefits and retirement plans are paid by tax payers' money. I cannot ever remember seeing WGAL do a piece where they follow a teacher for a week or two and see the work that an individual actually does - before, during and after school hours. I cannot remember seeing WGAL do any reports on the fact that we teachers in Pennsylvania have NO choice but to be part of our retirement program. We are required to put a designated amount of money into PSERS and the schools are required to match it. While we have entered into this contract with no choice, you get a job you're signed up for PSERS, the state can freely take money FROM our retirement funds or not contribute their fair share. Imagine the uproar if you worked for a private business, had profit sharing, and the company just didn't put in their fair share even after making a profit.

To add even more insults to injuries laws are being proposed that will negate these contracts, even though they were established in Pennsylvania's Constitution. I could potentially lose all that I rightfully earned by doing my job for the last 15 years, and I had no choice but to deposit into this flawed system. Again, I ask what the uproar would be if banks or investment institutions were allowed to simply take that money out of private individuals' investment accounts? I imagine it would be great and those individuals would not be vilified as teachers have been. (Oh.... wait..... yeah....)

I get it - times are tough for everybody. EVERYBODY. Times are tough for teachers as well. It's time you stop choosing to make us "the bad guys" in this budget debate. Certainly there are some districts where unions have bargained outrageous contracts, but it's not all due to teachers. School board members (community members / tax payers) and district administration also have to approved that bargaining contract as well.

Perhaps it's time to take a closer look at the governor and state legislature and see how they have used (or misused) funds in the past to cause this funding debacle in the first place.

Next time you decide to run such a divisive piece, please, please think about the people on both sides and provide a fair and balanced report. Teachers are taxpayers, too, and we have spouses who have lost their jobs just like millions of others. Many teachers have lost their jobs just like millions of others. We are not the evil ones in this story. Please stop making it seem like we are.

Becky Bair

Saturday, September 8, 2012

How Testing Affects Kids (and Teachers)

This week we had to give our students our beginning of the year standardized assessments. Here in PA we are one of many schools using the 4Sight tests to assess our students, predict how well they will do on the PSSAs (our state tests), and determine where we need to provide more intensive instruction.

(I'll add my snarky aside here - this year we're all graphing our scores and getting prizes if we do better. Yippeeeee!)

I'm all for using assessments to help me learn what my students need to be successful, but this week was a perfect example of how testing negatively impacts all students.

After a great first five days of school, Wednesday and Thursday morning our school ran a two hour delay schedule to take the reading and the math test. On both days I took my students who needed a small group testing accommodations to a different location while a specialist came to my classroom to proctor my students who did not. On both days we had to sit quietly, in one spot, for just about two hours as students completed the test. The first affect? While I didn't see tears from my small group like some did, I could see the frustration and hopelessness on my kids' faces. Heads' down. Sad looks. Loud sighs. They worked so hard, but you could just see defeat on many faces. So much for having a growth mindset - right now some of my kids are feeling, despite my efforts to tell them it's just a pretest and we will all grow and learn throughout the year, that they are stupid and they will never do well on these tests.

But these testing days did more than just affect my students' mindset, it impacted their behavior as well. Now, some of you who are reading this will say that it wasn't really the test, and unfortunately I need to get used to the fact that my week one honeymoon is over. I vehemently disagree. My kids were awesome on Tuesday, and they even managed to keep it together on Wednesday afternoon. But sitting for two hours and being out of our routine twice just threw them for a loop. They all put out so much effort and energy trying to pick the right bubbles and stay quietly in their seats that they had nothing left to give me on Friday. It didn't help that all of the technology I tried to use didn't work either! But the fact of the matter is that I pretty much lost 2.5 days of instruction due to standardized testing this week. 2.5 out of 4.

For What???

(Another aside - I know this next statement is not going to show the growth mindset I'm trying so hard to have, but I'm writing it anyway.)

It is a fact that some of my students are not currently going to be able to meet the standards being measured on this test. That is why they have legal documents stating that they are working towards different goals and require accommodations. Forcing these kids to take these assessments that give me no usable information to guide my classroom instruction simply steals valuable instructional time and creates a fixed mindset and feelings of hopelessness in many of my kids.

When I try to advocate for my students, these are some of the responses I get:

"They have to get used to it. They aren't going to get to take the PSSAs on a lower reading level." Yeah I know, but perhaps if they took assessments on their levels I could get some usable data for instruction in my classroom. And I really don't think that the "practicing for the PSSAs statement is valid at any time.

"But we're required to show how they are progressing on the grade level standards." This is about the dumbest requirement I have ever heard. Wouldn't making progress on their goals demonstrate that they are making progress towards grade level standards?

"Unfortunately this is education. You're just going to have to deal with it." <sigh> Do I? Do I really have to just deal with it? Is that an answer that we should settle for in education?

Maybe I don't have the choice as to whether or not I give these assessments, but I recognize how they negatively impact all of my students and my opportunity to provide a positive learning environment for them. You can bet your booty that after recharging this weekend we're all going to have a fresh start, and I'm going to make the most of the time I have between now and the next test to help my students learn and grow at their levels and to gather a ton of evidence to prove to them and their parents that they can be successful.

No matter what those dumb tests say.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Changing Parent Night for the Better

I'm pretty sure it's standard practice for every elementary school to have a Back to School Night where parents can come in, meet the teacher, and hear all about what their children will be doing in school. This year I decided to do something a little bit different with my presentation, and that decision led to one of the best evenings I've ever had.

In the past parent night has been much less about the kids and parents and much more about the rules, homework and curriculum. In thinking about how my philosophy has changed over the last year I knew that I needed to do something different that would help parents understand that academics are certainly important, but my biggest goal is to help their children grow and thrive as individuals. I also wanted to explain why our team was a little bit different than others, since people in small towns do talk, and I had some very special students whose stories needed to be shared.

So rather than my traditional, "Here are the rules, here's what we do in reading, here's what we do in math...." kind of schpeal, as the parents came in they had an assignment. They had a questionnaire to help me get to know them and their children a little bit better. For the first 15 minutes, they took some time and answered the following questions:

  • What is one thing I need to know about your child to help him or her be successful this year?
  • What is one goal you have for your child for fourth grade?
  • What is one thing you need from me to support your child's learning at home?
  • Is there any other important information you'd like me to know so I can better support your child here at school?
  • Would you be interested in coming to evening trainings about Daily 5 and the technology tools that we are using in the classroom?

While the parents were answering those questions I was able to walk around and personally greet each family that came in and thank them for coming. While only 11 of my students were represented (50% of my class), there were 18 adults so I was very pleased with the turnout. 

After the first 15 minutes I got started with my talk. While I did spend a bit of time with the traditional homework / rules / curriculum piece, a majority of my time was spent talking about my philosophy of education, how we are working to build community and become good people, how we use technology to meet those goals, and helping the parents who were in attendance understand the special health needs of my two students. We also spent some time looking at our class blog, our student blogs and our twitter account so parents could start getting involved right away online.

While I still feel like I talked to much, I feel much better about the content of my talking. I did what I wish my administrators would do during faculty meetings: cut out the information that could simply be posted online and focused on topics that were important to the parents. 

What made me feel so positive about the evening was the fact that the change in format allowed me to greet every family in the beginning and allowed enough free time at the end to have a short personal conversation with every parent or set of parents. Between the face to face interaction and the meaningful answers parents gave me I have already started to develop positive relationships with families so we can work together to help the kids grow throughout the year. 

One thing that I've been thinking about a lot and wrote about here is that at some point we have to stop just talking about things online and start DOING them in our classroom. This is one example of how a very small change to better match my new philosophy will continue to pay huge dividends throughout the school year. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Lessons from Lockers

It has been a whirlwind two days of school so far, and I'm loving every minute of it. I have a wonderfully unique bunch of new friends who are definitely going to keep me on my toes, and I've already had many positive experiences with both kids and parents. While nothing is going like I had planned (does it EVER the first week of school???) it interesting to see the lessons we learn in the littlest places.

Take our lockers.

When my friend Marsha asked me how my first day was, this was my response:

Getting into an attached combination lock on our hallway lockers is hard for our 4th graders. They have to remember the combination (although we help by sticking a label in a secret spot in their agenda), they have to remember to spin to the right, then left past the number and stopping the second time, then back to the right and stopping the first time you get to the number. Geez! That's even complicated to type!

There are sighs. There is frustration. There are rattles as the latch jiggles but no locker opens. There are many whines of, "I can't do it!" "I need help!" and, my personal favorite, "Mrs. Bair, my locker is broken!" There may also have been one or two whines of, "I'm only one person guys. I will get to you as soon as I can. Keep trying or see if a friend can help!" It's a harrowing balance opening lockers without stepping on our friends who have lower lockers or slamming them in the head when the top ones finally open. At the end of the first day all but one of us, and that one wasn't me, were pretty sure that we were never going to get into our lockers.

But these lockers are something special. They are LOCKERS. You can decorate them *any way you want* and it's your space. All yours. Big kids have lockers, and each 4th grader sees this locker as their gateway to being a big kid. So those lockers that may do us in are suddenly the best teachers in the world.

  • They teach us to stop and think about what we're doing.
  • They teach us patience.
  • They teach us our left and right. 
  • They teach us how to remember things.
  • They teach us counting on a number line. 
  • They teach us patience.
  • They teach us not to give up.
  • They teach us to help others.
  • They teach us to accept help.
  • They teach us patience.
  • They teach us what it's like to feel successful when it FINALLY pops open!
  • They teach us to be even more proud when we open it ON THE FIRST TRY!!

Magically, like a light shining down from the heavens and angels singing, the lockers clicked for almost my entire class at the end of the day today. The smiles on the kids' faces were priceless, and I love high-fiving each one as they came to tell me that they were successful. They did it!

And when the kids were all gone and the hallway was quiet, I realized that the lockers proved something I've known for a while now. Kids don't need a teacher to learn. They need a meaningful task about which they care. They need something they want badly. And when they have that some amazing learning happens.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

They Said We Were the Bad Guys...

Last year my two teammates and I proposed a change for the way students were grouped in our grade level. We felt that in order to best meet students' emotional and academic needs it would be better for them to have less transitions and fewer teachers throughout the day. While it meant more work for us (we were going back to teaching all four subjects rather than just teaching two like we did during our first year at our new school), we knew that it would be better for the kids. Fewer teachers meant deeper relationships, and focusing on building relationships and creating a caring environment would, hopefully, help the students be willing to take risks and be able to recognize their strengths and develop confidence.

We met with a tremendous amount of resistance, as does anybody who introduces change, and it has made for some very challenging times. We were the bad guys. We "ruined" our happy family, we made people's lives difficult, we were crazy, we were "those 4th grade teachers." But no matter what people say or what people do, we continue to tell ourselves that it will all be worth it because it's truly going to make a difference for our students.

Today we had our "opening ceremonies" for the new school year. Following an Olympic theme our superintendent focused upon the importance of relationships: getting to know our students, building strong relationships with them, and developing positive relationships with their parents. This theme continued on through our building specific meetings. Develop positive relationships with parents. Get to know your students. Make a difference.

So we may be the bad guys. But to hear relationships become a focus made me feel like we have made a difference.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Connected Educator Month - How do I Start?

Throughout the summer I have the opportunity to participate in several webinars designed to introduce people to the importance of connected learning. Some of these are sessions scheduled specifically for Connected Educators Month while others are part of PLP's ongoing program. No matter why the sessions were scheduled, I've started to notice that there are two questions that pop up in every single discussion. Since I see these same questions on Twitter and hear them when I talk with my coworkers about the learning I'm doing online I thought it would be a good idea to talk about them a little bit.

Question One: How in the world do you get started?

Getting start is the challenging part because there is just SO MUCH STUFF out there. There are so many tools you can use, so many places you can visit, so many events you can attend that one can get overwhelmed and give up very quickly. Even I get overwhelmed sometimes by the sheer amount of possibilities out there. So where does somebody who's trying to get connected start? My answer is pick one tool, become familiar with it, see how you can grow and learn by using that tool, and then go from there.

For me that tool was Twitter. Why did I pick Twitter? Honestly? I was scared and it seemed easy. I didn't really think I would have much to say or that anybody would listen to me even if I thought I did! But what harm could I do setting up a Twitter account and following people who were knowledgeable and had great things to teach me?? By getting on Twitter and starting to follow a few people, I could hide in the shadows (lurking is what connected people call it), see how people did this whole Twitter thing, read links that I thought were interesting, and maybe send out my own Tweet. Scary, yes, but I was limited to 140 characters so it seemed much more manageable than writing a blog.

I appreciated Twitter because it gave me the courage to sharing my ideas, it connected (and continues to connect) me with a pretty incredible group of amazing teachers, and it made me realize that if I really wanted to learn and grow I needed to take the next step and starting blogging and commenting on other's blogs. 140 characters just wasn't enough! So Twitter worked for me. It may not work for you - you have to find the tool that fits you and your needs. If you think Twitter is the tool you want to use, you can get on PLP's mailing list and get a Twitter handbook. Not interested in being on the mailing list? Then Jerry Blumengarten's page might be the resource for you. Or you may find the tool that WILL work for you in Jerry's vast set of resources.

Question Two: Where do you get the time to do all of this?

While most people think that teachers work from 8 - 3:30 and have their evenings, weekends, and summers off, you and I know differently. Time is probably more precious to teachers than any other resource, and it's often challenging to see how you might fit one more thing into an extremely busy schedule. Work, planning, grading, and other job responsibilities take up more than our contracted work days. Kids, families, home responsibilities take up another large part of our day. And, every now and then, we'd all like the chance to pursue some of our own interests: exercising, cooking, gardening... insert whatever you'd like to do right here.

So how does a connected learner balance being a teacher, a learner, a family person and honoring his or her own personal interests? I go back to my first suggestion: pick one tool. Chances are that the one tool you pick to start is going to provide you with plenty to keep you busy so there's no sense overwhelming yourself.

Once you pick that one tool, start with 15 minutes a day. Maybe you check out your Twitter feed while you're eating breakfast in the morning or look at your RSS feed while you're on the treadmill. Or perhaps that show that you *thought* you loved really isn't that great any more, and you have an extra 30 minutes to spend browsing through tags in Diigo. During the summer, breakfast time is my time to see what's going on, and I often catch up in the evenings, too. When school is in session I make Saturday or Sunday morning my learning time, and squeeze in little times here and there as I can throughout the week.

My guess is that pretty soon you will start to see the value of being a connected educator, and you'll make more time in your day to add a new tool, follow more people, or get involved in more conversations. But don't think you have to be connected all of the time. Yep - you might miss something if you don't get online for a day or two or a week, but there will be just as much good stuff when you come back. And if something is THAT great, it will get passed around so you'll have a chance to see it when you do have time.

If you're just getting started as a connected educator, be prepared for an amazing journey. But don't feel like you have to gear up and climb Mt. Everest right now because that will only frustrate you and cause you to give up. Take a little bit of time each day, learn a new tool, and try one or two new things. Eventually you'll be ready to scale that mountain, and it will probably be sooner than you expected!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Another Frustrating Day of Inservice

Ahhh yes, the end of August. The time when we teachers are frantically scrambling to replace all of the things we had to put away in the middle of June so our rooms could be cleaned. The time when we are trying to figure out how to implement all of the amazing things we have learned over the summer while we connected with people from around the world.

The time when we sit through inservice or professional development days and want to stab our eyes out.


Don't get me wrong. Parts of the day, like this morning, were very enlightening. While tendious, I sat and viewed the files of all 88 students on our team via our data warehouse software (which apparently does approximately 500 reports, just not the ones we want so we do them by hand!) and identified how many students scored Advanced, Proficient, Basic and Below Basic on their third grade reading PSSA (state assessment) last year. Like I said, very tedious, but I feel like I learned some interesting things about our kids and our curriculum. For example, out of all of our students, only 12 were proficient on the anchor about figurative language. Either that was an invalid question or we're not doing a very good job teaching figurative language in third grade. I "met" a young man who completely aced the two nonfiction sections on the test and completely bombed the fiction sections. I can't wait to see if he just loves nonfiction that much, if it was the topics of the passages in the test, or what it is that makes this little guy tick. Our purpose, besides learning interesting tidbits like these two I just mentioned, was so that our "team could develop individual and team goals about how we can help our students achieve proficient levels during the next school year." For our team to be successful, a brief over view leads me to believe that focusing on summarizing both fiction and nonfiction, determining important information, making connections to text, and understanding figurative language will help our students' better understand the information they're reading.

Then I got to go and see a draft of our new progress reports. So here - spend 3 hours looking at data to see what your kids need, but here's what you're going to teach them each marking period no matter what they really need.


Maybe it's just how I define "standards based" but to me that means there is a list of standards and you say wow this child is blowing it out of the water, yep this child is right where he or she needs to be, or we're working to help this child make progress towards this standard. And then you give evidence: writing pieces, recordings of readings, demonstrations, and projects to prove why the child is where he or she is on that contiuum. I would like to do something like this. I would like to do something to involve the students, but we all have to be the same. Common assessments, common reporting.... but what if I want more???

It's sad, and it's frustrating. Education is such a big system, after days like this I wonder if there really is anything I can ever do to change it. I express my opinions and get knowing nods of, "I know, but my hands are tied," from some and eyes rolled from others who think I'm just being a squeaky wheel. But if I'm not the squeaky wheel, then who will be? Who will change things for our kids??

So today I'm frustrated and feel like an ant trying to move an 18-wheeler. But I'll keep pushing because you just never know what might happen.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

I Did It!

The other day I talked about how important it is to understand that failing or not meeting your goal may not be the best feeling, but it's part of life and part of learning and growing. They are not bad things. If you read that post, you know it was a big lesson that I needed to learn. If you made it to the end, you also know that I signed up for a crazy event (well, crazy as in, "Good grief I can't believe I'm doing this!") in order to learn that lesson.

Well, I'm here to tell you that I DID IT!! I survived!! And I want to tell you all about it because this ended up being a story about being flexible, having patience, having unexpected help, trusting people and just going with the flow. So please be patient with my little novel here.

First you need to know that I am a planner. In thinking about doing this I had already attempted to run the different parts of the running course, and I made a schedule for myself the morning to the race so I would be all ready to go.

Then Wednesday evening happened and threw a kink in my well-planned schedule.

Very often people around here, for many different reasons, think that they can cross the river without a boat or any type of life preservers. I think they believe it's possible because the Susquehanna (pronounced Suss-kwah-hanna for those of you from afar) is actually very shallow in many spots. What they don't realize is how deep it is in other spots. They also don't realize, which I just learned yesterday during the race, is that there are many places where the current swirls, pulls you in odd ways, and just plays tricks on you. Properly equipt you can safely travel up, down and across the river and enjoy the beautiful surroundings.

Sadly, three young men tried to swim across the river Wednesday evening with no protective equipment. Two of the young men were eventually rescued by passing boaters, but a third did not make it. A search and then recovery mission started Wednesday evening and continued through Friday night. I received a call Friday that because of the emergency situation we would be starting the race three hours later than expected. The planner in me had been doing all my runs earlier so I would be familiar with the conditions so that made me very nervous. But it was out of my hands so I rejoiced in the fact that I would get to sleep in 3 hours!

Saturday morning arrived, I followed my adjusted, but well planned out schedule, and I arrived for registration about 10 minutes early. The scene was very, very confusing. The kayaking company responsible for the second part of the race had been helping with the recovery mission the night before without success, but as they were setting up the course they discovered the missing swimmer. During the next three hours the authorities had to take care of their responsibilities, the family needed a chance to mourn, and the organizers of the race needed to come up with a plan to set up the kayaks when they couldn't get to either the launch location or the finish line. So, my best laid preparation plans flew out the window (as they should have) and thankfully my nerves went along with them. I talked to my friend Alan, made some new ones, and just waited until we got the word that we could board the buses to take us to the starting line.

We ended up starting the race at 12:10, much later (and hotter) than we had expected. Off we went, and it only took about a 1/2 mile until I was the last runner in the race. But it was okay. When the handy dandy lady from MapMyRun came on to tell me my first mile was up, she told me I had finished it in 13:02 - I know that doesn't sound like a great time, but for me - that was the fastest mile I have completed this whole summer. I was thrilled and kept going. I walked a bit during mile two, but I still finished that mile in 13:23! I was on a roll! WOO HOOO!

And then I came off the trail. And hit the hill. And the sun. And the proverbial wall.

My dear hubby was waiting for me at the top of the hill (which really isn't that big, but it looked like a mountain to me) with my next bottle of water, and I had never been happier to see him. He later told me he was very worried when he saw me, and he was actually expecting me to call him to come get me because I couldn't make it to the kayaks. I'm proud to say that the thought never even crossed my mind. My two choices were to be last or to quit, and the second option really wasn't even a choice.

I didn't run much after that - little pockets here and there, but the heat and my awesome first two miles took a lot out of me. I kept putting one foot in front of the other, kept sipping my water, and kept making little goals for myself. I finally ran down the last stretch and under the bridge. I had traveled 4.91 miles in 1:12:23 to reach the transition area where I changed my shoes and got ready to head out.

One of my biggest fears was being last, but I ended up finding out that being the last runner had some perks. There were four guys at the boat launch who were still cleaning up from the earlier rescue operations. As I changed my shoes and got my preserver on, they graciously carried my kayak down to the river. Then they helped me into the kayak and gave me a great shove to start the second part of my journey! I believe there may be a video on FB of this, but I haven't seen it yet.

Once I got out of the course, it was a little scary at first - like I said earlier, I didn't realize how the current swirled and pulled in some places so I wondered if I would really be able to make it all the way down to the finish line under the bridges. Rather than going back and giving up, I focused on the first set of orange flags marking my course and just paddled. There was a man on the rocks who asked if I was having fun (I said, "Maybe!") and pointed me towards the next flags and river guide. I shared that I was the last person, and he radioed that information on to the rest of the group.

As I passed the next river guide, he also asked if I was having fun, and he gave me some helpful tips for getting through the next part of the river where it got a bit rocky. I was actually enjoying the paddling even though it was more challenging than the other trips I have taken. I thanked him for his help and headed for the next flags. And this is where the cool part happened. The next guide actually got into his kayak and came to greet me. He asked me how I was doing, asked if I was having fun, and then paddled with me to help me along. He told me when to paddle hard to get over the rocks, and let me follow him through the tricky spots.

The other two guides quickly caught up with us, they provided me a big bump when I ended up getting stuck on some rocks, and two of them (sadly, I did not get their names) guided me most of the rest of the way to the finish line. As we got closer they paddled off to the side and told me that I needed to go and finish on my own - they didn't want to steal my thunder. It would have been very fitting if they had paddled with me to the end. It was their help and positive words that truly got me to the end.

I crossed the finish line where Jerry and Alan were cheering me on. My final time for the entire race was, I think, 1:59:23. I know it was 1:59:something. It may be less than that - I'm not sure if they count the transition time or not. Either way, I finished under 2 hours. I never really set myself a goal for completing the event, but I was happy to finish 5 miles with a pace of less than 15 minutes per mile, and I was very pleased to finish just a *wee little bit* under two hours.

So I did it. It was HARD, and some parts were a little scary. But I never wanted to quit, and I didn't give up. I was last, but I did it! And even though I was the one who had to actually DO it, I know that it was the support of my friends, both online and in person, the help from the wonderful kayak guides, and the help from my husband who brought me much needed water during the run and cheers at the end that got me to the finish line.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Connected Educator Month - Not Just About Learning

If you were to ask people what the best part about being a connected educator is, many would probably tell you that being connected lets you learn more than you would ever learn at your own building. There are so many great opportunities to be had online for free, it's not a shock that people talk highly about it. Take a look in any column on my twitter feed, and you'll see numerous links to tools and activities I can use in my classroom, ideas to make my life easier, blog posts to make me question what I do and how I do it, and webinars that require me to rethink my philosophy of education. Certainly the new learnings are a huge part of what it means to be a connected educator.

Just as many people, if not more (me being one of them), will tell you that while the learning is fabulous it is truly the people you meet during these exchanges that are the real cornerstone of what it means to be a connected educator. Born and raised in a small town in Pennsylvania, I now work in a slightly larger small town about an hour south of where I grew up. To say this area is.... ummm.... a bit traditional or conservative is just a bit of an understatement. My forward thinking views on just about everything don't always go over so well, but the people I have met online have encouraged me to take the things I've have learned and go for it in my classroom. Their support has been invaluable as has their willingness to listen to and validate my ideas. Equally important are those people who push back and cause me to rethink my reasoning and question if what I'm doing is really the best thing for kids.

From my little spot in Pennsylvania, I have collaborated with teachers in Ft. Worth, Texas and Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada. I've taken classes with people from Norway, and co-coached in an online space with a fabulous woman from Denmark! I've met a wonderful mentor who lives in Ohio, and I coached and learned about Project Based Learning (PBL) from a team of educators in Australia. I have made friends from across the United States and in all parts of Canada. Many of them are wonderful resources from whom I can learn. Some of them are friends first, people to learn from second. Sometimes, as was the case in this post, it's easier to reflect on situations through writing than by talking things out. And while I do eventually have face-to-face conversations after I've taken the time to process what I've written, some of my online friends jumped right in and provided the support I needed.

Yes, being part of Connected Educators Month does mean that you will have to opportunity to learn a tremendous amount of new information. But more importantly being a Connected Educator means you will meet a tremendous amount of amazing people who are valuable resources, and you'll make some true friends who will be there to support you not only in your educational endeavors but in your personal ones as well.

So, by the end of this month I hope you will not only be saying to yourself, "Wow! Look at all I learned!" but that you will also be saying, "Wow! Look at the incredible people I have met!"

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Learning to be a Role Model

One of the things I really try to instill in my students is self-confidence. I want them to feel as though they have the ability to try anything they want to and are capable of achieving anything under the stars. I also want them to know that failing or not meeting your goal may not be the best feeling, but it's part of life and part of learning and growing. They are not bad things.

The funny thing is that the last part there is something I struggle with terribly myself.

Well, I should clarify that. In terms of writing here or trying new things in my classroom, I'm not so afraid of failing or not meeting my goals. If nobody reads my blog posts, it's okay. My writing is more for my personal reflection, and if people want to join in and get something out of it that's just an added bonus. But there are no goals for number of hits or no sadness if I don't get comments. It just is what it is. And in my classroom with my kids, we try and fail all the time. The kids very quickly get used to me saying, "Well THAT didn't work! What do you guys think we should have done differently?" My students learn that mistakes or activities not working out are just opportunities to learn and think about a situation in a different way. It teachers us to problem solve and be flexible. And we often have some fun along the way.

It's almost like I am two different people - the teacher, writer, connected educator in me understands that things won't always work out. But in my personal life the me that is trying to get healthier doesn't quite get that. That me isn't very self-confident, and she still hasn't learned that trying and coming up short is better than not trying at all.

Teacher Me will have the chance to try something new with my class, whether is a program or a piece of technology, and she will say, "WOO HOOO!! Let's do this and see what happens!"

Personal Me will be faced with the opportunity to try a new exercise that looks challenging and she will say, "That looks cool, but I could never do it. No thanks."

Teacher Me will try a lesson, have it bomb, and say, "Hahahaha - well we're going to have to try that differently tomorrow!"

Personal Me will try a new exercise, not do so well at it and say, "Ugh. I knew I shouldn't have even tried. I'm not doing that again."

Teacher Me will set goals for personal learning or student growth. We may reach our goals or not, but we celebrate how far we have come and the growth we have made.

Personal Me will set a goal and get frustrated when it's not met. And when others try to show her how far she has come, her response typically starts with, "Yeah but...." and ends with something that negates the growth she has made.

Teacher Me tries to be positive no matter what and perseveres.

Personal Me tends to be more negative and gives lots of excuses.

It's hard to admit that there are two different sides of me, but there it is. Out in the open. I can't hide or make excuses any more. If I really want to be a good role model for my students, then I need to believe and live positively, without fear of failure, and embracing challenges in all parts of my life.

So, my first challenge is coming up next Saturday. I signed up for an event that was billed as a 4+ mile run and then a few miles of kayaking down the river. Being the novice runner that I am I knew the run part would be a challenge, but I thought I could do it. I've been practicing and was able to run from what I thought was the start to the finish!! And then I found out the actual route for the run. And discovered that what I thought 4+ meant (a little over 4) is actually going to be a little over 4.8! Eek! Personal Me immediately started screaming, "YOU CAN'T DO THIS! IT'S TOO FAR!! YOU NEED TO BACK OUT!!" As a matter of fact, she's still screaming right now.

But I'm going to try. I know that my original goal of running the whole thing will not happen, but I keep telling myself that it will be okay (and really, it will) if I have to walk some of it. I'm nervous. I'm scared. I'm worried that I'm going to be last and people will laugh at me. I'm not sure how to not feel that way. But I am sure that if I'm going to expect my kids to be risk takers, then I need to do the same. And this is the perfect way to start.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Connected Educator Month - More Than Just Talk?

This afternoon I had the distinct pleasure of participating in one of the opening panel discussions for Connected Educator Month. The discussion, Professional Learning and the Learning Profession, and the month-long forum that goes with it, will focus on how teachers are / should be taking charge of our own learning. We must see the value of continuing to be active learners, and we must take the initiative to seek and participate in our own learning. It's time that we search out what is interesting to us, what will benefit our students, and what will help us grow and learn as individuals.

But more and more, and I wrapped up the conversation with this comment today, I wonder what people are actually doing with all this talk. Are people actually going back to their schools and pushing for change beyond their classroom walls? Daniel Whitt  made a great comment. If we really want to see change, we need to be prepared because it's going to be difficult. It's going to be ugly. And bridges will burn. Believe me, I know first hand how those bridges burn. My teammates and I found out when we tried to initiate change in our building this year. It burns, and it gets ugly. But if what we're doing is right for the kids then we must go forward strongly and be prepared for the fires.

Our kids don't need more talk. They need and deserve action from us. They deserve teachers who are positive deviants (I believe that name also came from Daniel during our discussion, but I may be wrong about that) who positively push for and affect change in a slow and stubborn system.

So I ask you, if you are participating in Connected Educators Month, what are your goals? How will you take what you have learned and change what you are doing for kids? How will you make a difference in your school?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

So Many Ideas

Each day this summer I've made time to check my reader, catch up on Twitter and comment on some blog posts. I've also had the pleasure of reading and reviewing a few different books for the fine folks at MiddleWeb. I've learned so much and found many great ideas that I've shared with my teammates for our potential use this year. They have done the same for me. What does this mean?

We have SO MANY ideas!

We have so many ideas I'm not even sure how to organize them or go about implementing them.

But that's good news. The better news is that I work with some really great people, and each of us has different strengths. While one person may find the idea, the others are good at organizing, seeing the big picture or figuring out how to make it best for all of our learners. It's why we're such a good team. Our strengths compliment each other, we're willing to push back when we don't agree with something, and the kids are the number one thing in all of our hearts.

So bring on your ideas Blogs, Twitter and Facebook. We can handle them and make this year amazing for our kids!

Friday, July 20, 2012

My Thoughts on the Tragedy

I woke up this morning, like many of you, to news of the horrific events at the movie in Colorado. It's very difficult for me to hear about tragedies like this, and I feel a tremendous amount of sadness for the families who have lost loved ones. They are gone forever thanks to the senseless act on one sick individual.

My thoughts on this are varied and scattered so I'm just going to throw them up here to say my piece.

In the coming days and weeks the debate about gun control will rage. It's a challenging discussion for me. On one hand the senseless loss of any life, no matter how it might be taken (because people die from other things besides a person using a gun), is just that. Senseless. On the other hand, as responsible guns owners, my husband and I appreciate the right to enjoy guns for sport and for, heaven forbid, protection. In addition to teaching me to love and respect nature my Grandpap taught me how to handle and shoot guns safely. Those times with him are some of my most treasured memories from growing up, and I surely would not be the self-proclaimed tree-hugger I am without them. I don't know what else can be done to stop these acts of violence by a small percentage of people, but I don't agree with banning all guns from all owners.

One topic that won't receive much attention but probably should is the media's handling of this situation. Yes, we need to know what happened. Yes, we should have accurate reporting. Yes, people who were there will upload their own videos and accounts because they can and should be able to get their stories out. But what disturbs me is the way the story is sensationalized and over-reported by the largest media outlets. The story was everywhere this morning, as one would expect, but I was bothered when I was slapped in the face with a headline that ended with, "The Batman Massacre" - huge font, big bold letters. I'm no psychologist, but I often feel like many of the people who commit these horrific acts of violence do so for attention or to get their message out. Wouldn't it be better for media to report the facts of the event and then focus on the victims and what could be done to support their families or their recovery rather than focusing on what was done, how it was done, and who did it? This would surely remove the attention from the suspect and lower the risk for those who might be interested in garnering the same amount of attention through a copy-cat crime.

There was one other thing that bothered me tremendously as I read through the article about the events of last night. The article I read specifically mentioned a 3 month old victim and a 6 year old victim, and it was stated that other children were among the injured. According to the movie is rated PG-13, and this happened at a midnight showing. What in the world were people thinking having their young children at this show??? It is a parent's right to raise their child they way they want to so if they choose to take them to this type of action film, that's their choice. I actually have less of a problem with the PG-13 rating (it still bothers me, but again - their choice) than I do with the fact that these kids should have already been in bed for 3 or 4 hours not at a movie at midnight. It just upsets me that these kids were in a situation where they, in my mind, shouldn't have been in the first place.

I can tell you that the discussions surrounding this tragedy are going to get UGLY - discussions about personal freedoms, like gun control, always do. Discussions where you question somebody's choices about how they raise their children usually do. You've probably seen some of these ugly exchanges, often fueled by people hiding behind anonymous avatars, in comments across the web. I hope they don't get ugly here - I didn't post my opinions to be attacked or to start an argument, I simply wanted to reflect.

So as I've been writing this I've been thinking back to my Zumba post. What I can take from this experience that could help my students in the classroom? In those ugly discussions people will not listen to each other. They will insult each other. They will say things that are not true and place blame where it doesn't belong. Perhaps what I can take from this is that I need to really focus on helping my students learn how to participate in civil discourse. We need to respect others' opinions, even when they differ from our own. We need to try and make our point without insulting people or sounding like sailors. We need to do our research and support our opinions with fact, not emotion. And we need to treat each other kindly. There's already so much ugly in the world, we need to learn to spread more light.

Monday, July 16, 2012

How Zumba Will Help My Students

It's a well known fact among my real life friends that I'm just a little bit uncoordinated. And by "little bit" I mean that my mom has always jokingly called me Grace, and the list of seemingly impossible injuries (like running into a bench on a track and getting 10 stitches) could fill up a page of notebook paper. With all my natural clumsiness it's kind of amazing that I enjoy and am, at least in my mind, pretty good at Zumba.

For those of you who've never seen or heard of Zumba, it's a Latin dance based cardio workout. My favorite instructors remind everybody that the point of Zumba is to get moving and having fun. We aren't supposed to look like the instructor or like each other. While every class and instructor is a little bit different, Zumba looks something like this:

So you might be wondering how Zumba is going to help my students besides giving me the stamina to keep up with them!

One of the things I have noticed is that many Zumba instructors attend other instructors' classes. I haven't researched to see if this is actually a requirement for new instructors to get certified, but I see it just about every single week. Imagine if teachers, new or veteran, had the opportunity to go and not only observe but participate in other teachers' classes! What could we learn from each other? What kinds of suggestions could we make to help each other better meet our students' needs? What little things would we notice about the kids that would help our colleagues build better relationships with their students? Really, the possibilities to this kind of learning are endless. I need to figure out a way to make this work for me during the upcoming school year.

That isn't the only thing from tonight's class that will help my students. This evening one of those new instructors was participating in class. He, yes HE - very few male instructors in this area, was an enthusiastic participant, and I'm looking forward to going to one of his classes. After class I ended up in one of those awkward "I'm walking one direction, he's walking in the other and we end up in the same spot" situations with him. As we started to move around each other he looked me in the eye and said, "Hey - great job tonight!" I had never talked to him prior to this moment, but he took just a second to acknowledge my hard work in class and give me a compliment.

His positive comment has stuck with me all night long. It reinforced my feelings of enjoyment and confidence, and it made me more interested in attending one of his classes. How often do we teachers take every opportunity we can to compliment our students, to point out the positive effort they are putting into a task or the the positive choices they are making? Even if it is a priority for you, I bet we could find even more opportunities to positively support our students. And if four little words can make such a big impact on a 38 year old, imagine what those four little words could do for a 7, 9 or 13 year old!

So how will Zumba help my students? Tonight it reminded me that my coworkers are great learning resources, and it reminded me that I need to catch my students "doing good" as often as possible.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Reading Update

I'm still not sold on e-reading. I get that it's a great way to get connected and to learn more while reading, but I'm just not loving it. While we were at the beach I finished Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and started The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. I'm about halfway through the latter, but since we've been home I just haven't been motivated to pick up the iPad and read. I'm not sure why I'm so against e-reading. Maybe it's because I'm missing out on something - is it because I don't know what I don't know so I'm not getting the most out of my e-reading experience? I would love to hear why people love using an e-reader so maybe I can get it another valiant effort.

In the land of paper books, I finished four others while at the beach and after we got home. 

Two were the second and third books in the 50 Shades trilogy, and they were meh. I get the hype, but I'm glad I was able to borrow them and didn't spend the money to get them myself. 

The third book I read was One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd by Jim Fergus. I enjoy history, and I especially enjoy books that take a true historical event, in this case the offer from the Cheyenne to trade 1,000 while women for 1,000 horses, and put a twist on it. If you are at all interested in the Old West and the plight of the Natives and how they were treated, the book would be one for you. By the end of the book I had to keep putting it down every few pages because of how disgusted I was by how the whites treated these people, their land, and the animals who lived there.

I took a trip to a different era when I read The Last Wife of Henry VIII: A Novel by Carolly Erickson. Again the history aspect is what originally drew me to this book, and the story of Henry VIII and his many wives has been told many times over. I enjoyed the different perspective of this story, although the not-so-happy ending left me wanting to read more about those left behind. 

Next up on my list is a professional book that I'm reading and reviewing for MiddleWeb, and then I guess I'll try to get back to those e-books and see what I can do.

Monday, July 9, 2012

It's Hard to Do the Right Thing

This whole situation with my husband is really testing me, and sadly I'm not feeling like a very good person because of it. Right now I feel like I'd really like to be more on the top of this list than the bottom of it:
Even though I know it's not right and would just bring more negative energy into the situation, I would just like to see people get what they have coming to them. And some days I would like to just help that to happen a little bit faster. Would I actually do anything? Heck no - I'm terrified of karma!! And in my current mood I feel that, unlike others in this situation, karma would nail me right away. So I will keep trying to be strong and intelligent, but it's really hard.

It's especially hard on days like today. I'm sure you've probably seen this:
People do an awful lot of talking without thinking. I get it: people get upset so they tell lies to attack the other person with whom they are angry. But come on, people. If you're going to tell a lie about a person, at least think about it and make sure it makes sense! Anybody with half a brain can see that the latest lie I heard today is ridiculous. If my husband stopped selling your product in the old store because it was unsafe for people and animals (click here to read about the recall of foods that caused thousands of dogs and many people to be ill) and he even went to the local news to get the word out about this recall, why in the world would he want to carry that junk when he is finally able to open his own business?? If you're going to lie, please make it reasonable.

But the one thing that we've learned through all of this is that some people are simply ridiculous, and they will do just about anything to make up for their own shortcomings. Sadly, they will continue to talk and try to make things difficult for us, and we just have to try to be the better people.
So, like the frog, I will sit back and wait. And I will look forward to the day when this is all behind us and we can laugh at how ridiculous all of these brainless people really are.