Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Last year I decided to make my One Little Word self, and I'm not going to lie - I didn't do a very good job of it. As I was reading through my reflection from last December I found that I really haven't come any farther from where I was last year at this time. Over the summer I did try and make some of those positive changes, but once again I allowed myself to feel as though things out of my control took away my choices (not true), I expected the negative (you get what you look for), and I put others needs ahead of mine because it was just easier and kept the peace.

The loss of Grandma in November, and the unexpected death of our dear dog, Maxx, just two weeks ago has made it challenging to think that there were positives this year, but there really were. 
  • We have lived on one income, paid our bills, not added to our debt, and have been able to meet all of our needs and a want every now and then. 
  • I started kayaking and found peace on the water. Right now I'm saving up to buy my own kayak so I can go whenever I want.
  • Jerry's business has continued to grow and see success. As a matter of fact, he will actually be opening a new store in 2014.
  • We were able to travel to Las Vegas for a trade show, and I was able to meet a dear online friend in person for the first time. 
I'm sure there were many other positives, but these are the big ones that stand out to me. They each bring a smile to my face, warm my heart, and make me realize how much I really do have.

As I've been thinking about my word for this year, one thing I know to be true is that I am often and all or nothing person. I feel like I have to be going all out in anything or everything I do, or I can't do it at all. Just like some of my through processes, it's so not true, but it's how I tend to approach things. Either I go all out or I don't go at all. This often means I'm putting all sorts of effort into one area of my life and completing ignoring the others, or it means I'm not putting much effort into anything at all.

With Jerry's store on the horizon I know I'm going to be taking on a lot more responsibilities here at home, and I need to recognize that I can't do everything perfectly. So with that in mind I've picked my word for 2014. 


I need to balance the realistic with the dreams, the light with the dark, the work with the play, the healthy with the having fun, my happiness with the happiness of others in the hopes that I don't let everything get me down and burn out. I have no idea what 2014 holds in store for us, but I do know that we can only continue the upward growth that we started to see this year.

Whether you do resolutions, pick you own little word, or skip all of that and just change full steam ahead, I hope that 2014 holds much love and happiness for you.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Remembering Grandma

I wasn't born into Grandma Bair's family, but I managed to marry my way in after I stole her oldest grandson's heart almost 20 years ago. I think I had known Grandma for about 3.2 seconds before I learned that when Grandma Bair says jump, you say, "Yes, ma'am! How high?"

My husband's parents ran their own business when he was a little boy so he spent much of his time with Grandma and Pop. Like a typical little boy, he helped Pop with his chores - digging in the dirt, tinkering on machines and cars, working at the mill or on the farm. There was an endless supply of things for a kid to do with his grandfather, and while he talks about his times with Pop fondly Jerry's eyes light up when he talks about the time he spent with Grandma. The stories he tells the most, the ones that make his heart the happiest, are the stories about the times they spent fishing together. Grandma was apparently the best catfish fisherwoman in the county, and she and Jerry spent many days under the mulberry tree seeing what they could catch.

Grandma was a strong, stubborn, southern lady, and even though she came to Pennsylvania shortly after meeting Pop when he was stationed in Alabama serving in the Army Air Corp, she always had a bit of that twang to her voice. Grandma had southern mannerisms; she expected things to be done certain ways. And if you didn't do things the way they were supposed to be done, boy did she let you have it. It was expected that as soon as Grandma showed up you would go and give her a hug and a kiss on the cheek. One time, at a picnic, I didn't realize she had arrived because I was splashing around in the creek. When I finally did see her, boy oh boy! Did I ever get an earful! And I think I heard about "forgetting her hug" every time I saw her for the next year.

There are so many other things that I could say about Grandma, but there are two stories that really stand out to me as stories that give the true picture of who Grandma was. Jerry and I were getting ready for the cake-cutting at our wedding reception, and as everybody was getting ready for the official picture, Grandma made her way up to us. I can still see her finger waggle and the glare in her eye as she said, "Don't you DARE smoosh cake in her face and mess up that girl's dress!" And like a good grandson he did exactly as he was told. I may have gotten a little smoosh in, but even I was worried about the Wrath of Grandma if I made too much of a mess!

The second happened at Jerry's father's funeral. Jerry is super emotional, and losing his dad really took a toll on him. But when Pop died, Jerry struggled with the fact that he was not able to talk at the funeral so he insisted on speaking at his father's service. It was gut-wrenching, and there were several times I wanted to run up and help him. But he made it through what he wanted to say. After the service and greeting what seemed to be like a thousand friends and family members we finally sat down to eat some lunch. As we sat down at the table and started eating, Grandma, in her blunt fashion, said, "You were a mess up there. I don't want you talking at my funeral." We just shook our heads, and feigned shock, but secretly, I know she didn't mean it. Jerry was the grandchild she specifically asked to see when she made her decision on Sunday.

I guess that would be the final story. Even at the end Grandma was stubborn and did things exactly her way. She got a cold, and the past few years her colds have turned into bronchitis or pneumonia. This time she said she wasn't taking anything. That was Thursday, we said our final goodbyes last night, and she went home to be with Pop this afternoon on her own terms.

If they ever decide to put a picture along side the word matriarch in the dictionary, they need to use Grandma's. She was full of love and life, and while she was only my Grandma for 17 years, I am a better person because she willingly shared that love and life with me.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Interactive Math Journals - Part 2

Earlier this summer I kept seeing interactive math journals popping up everywhere, but I was a little concerned about the fact that they were simply a glorified way of taking notes. I didn't get any comments on my blog, but I shared the idea with my two teammates. I kept looking and being concerned, they got really excited, and here we are using interactive journals in math class. So I thought now would be the perfect time to revisit the questions I asked to see if I actually have the answers. What I wrote back in July is in bold print, and my thoughts today are underneath.

  • How is this different than the note-taking I did in high school?
    • It's a lot different. When I took notes in high school and in college the teachers talked or wrote things on the board, and we either summarized or copied. There have been a few times where our kids have copied things, but that's mostly been to check their work. Each of our activities have involved the kids exploring a topic and using what they know to create their own answers. Then they check them and make the corrections necessary so that their journals are accurate.
  • What about kids with fine motors skills who can't write in small boxes?
    • This is probably the drawn back I've seen with the journals. Because of our students needs, we have often provided typed information that they manipulate and glue into their journals rather than them doing all of the writing. Extra time for us in terms of typing, printing and doing some of the cutting, but it's still up to the kids to make sense of the information that we're giving them.
  • What about kids who can't keep up with note-taking in class? Are these as effective if the students are able to participate in the discussion but aren't taking their own notes?
    • I'm now seeing that, at least as we're using them, the journals really aren't so much a place for note-taking, but they are a place for collecting knowledge. I think as I was researching this summer I read a post where somebody likened the interactive journals to making your own text book, and now I understand what they mean. It's not so much about the kids writing or copying what you say, but it's a place for the kids to complete activities that show they've met the learning goal.
  • Besides taking notes and flipping the paper, how do the students affect some sort of change with these notebooks? What else do they do?
    • We're really just at the very start of our notebooks, but my teammates keeps reinforcing with the kids that this is their resource. We know it's hard to remember everything so this is a personal place to look back and get reminders about skills you already know. So what else are the kids doing with them? Using them to review topics and make connections to new ones. 
    • Some of our activities so far including creating moveable rays so kids could create different types of angles, gluing in an envelope with a set of polygons so the kids could compare different polygons by attributes and properties, and creating solids from nets. (I'm not going to lie -- we've been able to make some connections to real life activities in terms of using some of these ideas in construction and landscaping, but honestly, I'm not running around comparing polygons by their attributes. The kids did enjoy finding how shapes and solids really are everywhere in the real world and in art, though.)
  • It seems as though there are very specific notes that go in these notebooks. Do the students have to include exactly what the teacher wants in the Interactive Notebook or are the students free to write / organize their notebooks in a manner that makes sense to them?
    • As of right now we're giving our kids what we want to put into the journals, but we are leaving space and time at the end of each segment for the kids to do some type of a reflection. We think this is an extremely valuable resource, but we're having difficulty helping others see that these reflections are examples of formative assessments. Still working on changing the thoughts that assessments have to be tests or quizzes.
  • How much paper does this use?
    • Probably no more than a more traditional approach of using worksheets that go along with a text book. We probably use more than some people because we provide more completed items for the kids, but since we're using composition journals I don't feel the amount is extraordinary.

In addition to getting the answers to some of my questions, I'm also finding that the short breaks to cut and glue or manipulate and glue have been positive brain breaks or great opportunities for the kids to talk math. It's also been exciting to hear the conversations our kids have been having and watching them work together.

I'm thankful my teammates were able to see the potential and the positives when I couldn't, and I'm excited to see where our kids can go as we collect more and more knowledge in our journals.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Out of the Darkness

Tomorrow will be day 13 of school. In these first 13 days I have had or will have (by the end of tomorrow) Parent Night, a faculty meeting, 2 mornings (2 hours blocks each) of standardized testing, a support services meeting, my first walk-through, 3 hours of work to complete the paperwork for my clinical observation, a spelling inventory assessment, a pre-observation meeting, my entire class pulled for Dibels benchmarking, a follow-up meeting on the walk-through, two morning meetings to grade standardized testing open-ended responses, and a data meeting to place students in their appropriate intervention groups. And next week my post-observation paperwork is due, and I have meetings Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday morning before school, Thursday after school, and Friday during planning.

Oh - and I'm supposed to plan and prepare for instruction at some point, too.


I love teaching, but I do so little of it. So much of my time is spent on paperwork and in meetings (meetings, I might add, that could be eliminated through the use of a blog or other online collaboration tools), that I am forgetting the joy I have for working with my kids. And when I am with the kids so many of them are facing so many challenges it makes my heart even heavier.

I swore after reading this that I would not let them suck my fun circuits dry, and yet I'm already starting to feel a little dried out. After 12 days.

Just when I needed something to combat all of this a bright light appeared as I walked past the cafeteria. Five of my kiddos from last year were frantically waving at me so I thought, "What the heck! I'll brave the cafeteria and say hi." 5 minutes and about 20 hugs later I finally made it to the table of the five original girls whose waves brought me into the cafeteria in the first place. There were kids hopping up from tables all over the cafeteria (GASP!! Getting up without permission?!?!?!?!?! What were they thinking????) to say hi and give me a big hug.

Needless to say, I'm not feeling so dried up any more. And I think I'll have to stop by that cafeteria more often.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Nothing Like a Forced PLN

So to help us prepare and begin to implement the Common Core and work through our first year of the new Multiple Measures Evaluation System here in PA, my district is trying to do a lot of things to support us. While I appreciate everything that's going on I feel like once again education is taking something positive and making it more of a chore than a help.

Over the past three years I have developed a pretty substantial Personal / Professional Learning Network. Through the connections I've made on Twitter, the chats I'm part of, and the blogs that I read I am finding many teachers to learn with and from, and I'm learning so many new strategies to help my students explore and learn topics more successfully. I share what I've learned with colleagues, even going so far as sharing important blog posts and books that I'm reading with administrators, including our superintendent. The work that I do on my own, informally, has helped me learn and grow as a professional in ways that college courses and district provided days never have.

So what's with the title of my post?

Even though I am actively connected with people from around the world, my district has purchased licenses to a website called pd360. The idea is straight forward - you go in, watch a video, reflect, and discuss in a community; what's frustrating is that these are things that I am already doing on my own - but I'm not just analyzing video made by the School Improvement Network. I'm reading and watching blogs and videos made by other teachers, by people in the classroom, by students. I get to decide what might be valuable and might be the most helpful for me and my teammates and our unique group of students. In this program I am given a list of videos to watch (although I can browse the additional videos and choose ones of interest to me if I want to watch more), I'm given questions to answer, and I'm given tasks to complete in the in-program community, which right now is made up of the people I work with at school. Sounds so much more like a college course than a PLN to me.

Here's what I'm wondering: since the huge emphasis is differentiating instruction and mindfully planning for the different student needs in our classroom (the fact that this is only an emphasis now could be a whole other blog post -- are we really not doing this??) why is our administration not differentiating this professional development for the teachers? I feel it's because our administrators don't really know enough about each of us and the work we do in the classroom to truly differentiate and point us in the directions we each need to grow. I wonder what answer they would give. I'm definitely going to ask that as soon as I can.

But just like I tell my kids when there are skills we only have to learn for the tests (yep - we all know it happens), sometimes there is just stuff you have to do even when you don't like it. So I will plug ahead and complete the tasks that I'm required to do in the hopes that I will gain some new knowledge from it. I just hope that, at some point, the website will stop freezing and logging me out so I can actually accomplish the course I'm supposed to complete!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

I Hope

I hope my kids know, every day, just how much I love them.

I hope my kids realize how unique and special they are.

I hope my kids find something they love and want to know more about.

I hope my kids realize that reading is something we do for fun and to learn, not something we do to fill in bubble on a test.

I hope my kids have fun. And laugh. And feel safe. And feel like they are part of a family.

I hope my kids realize that we're not always going to be happy with each other, but that doesn't give us the right to be mean or belittle each other. I hope maybe some adults learn that, too.

I hope their parents realize what gift they've been given and how thankful I am that they share their kids with me.

I hope I remember that it's okay when things aren't perfect. Everything I do is a chance to learn and get better.

I hope I remember to take care of myself -- I can't be the best possible wife, friend and teacher if I'm not the best possible me.

I hope number 16 is one to remember for all of the right reasons. And I hope your year is, too.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Icky Incentive Update

A few weeks ago I wrote about a surprise I had received in regards to an incentive program that I was possibly going to be participating in. I appreciated all of the discussion and support I received, both here in comments and via email, and everything you shared helped me be prepared for the discussion our team held on August 14.

Some days I feel like life at school is one big fight. Ever since we pitched our proposal in the spring of 2011 it seems like we are constantly in a battle, a battle of trying to change versus keeping things the same as they've always been. Every now and then I just get tired of fighting, and even though we feel strongly about something we have to decide how big we want this battle to be. When it became apparent that I was going to be participating in this program no matter how I felt I decided to refocus on making the program something that didn't bother me quite so much.

I have to give a huge shout out to our math coach - she mediated a challenging discussion and helped us come up with a plan that worked for everybody. A key piece of that plan is the fact that it can be individualized by class and even by student if we want to go that far. Anyway, here's how things ended up:

  • Every 4th grade student will participate in the sundae incentive, but their progress will be personal - no display of who has passed which level.
  • There will be a pretest at the beginning of the year. Students who already know their multiplication facts will move directly on to division so they are earning a reward for new learnings. (No talk about what happens for kids who already know all of their facts.)
  • Teachers may individualize the tests to best meet the students' needs. (BIG shout out to my teammate on this one!!) We are going to find our students' levels (whether they are on addition, subtraction, multiplication or division) and support them as they grow through ten fact levels over the course of the year. At least in our classes there is no specific timeline to follow.
  • Students will not receive the sundae unless they demonstrate mastery of all 10 levels. Teachers may recognize mastery of individual levels as they see appropriate, and teachers may also recognize mastery beyond the original 10 levels.
  • There will be chances to earn the reward throughout the year instead of just 1 party at the end of November.
So, I don't like that I'm doing the incentive program. 

I do like that we will be able to individualize it to meet each student's learning level and that there is the opportunity for year-long growth not just a once & done program. I'm planning on having the kids help set their goals and coming up with a plan to meet those goals. 

And I'm hoping that next year I'll simply be able to just say no to a program like this.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Night Before Kickoff

That's what we call our opening inservice days - our kickoff. Honestly, it's a big improvement over what they used to be. In the past, under a former superintendent, test scores were flashed up on a screen. Schools were compared and criticized, and it was a horrible, horrible way to start the school year. I know some people think our new style of opening the school year is hokey, but I love it. It proves that my superintendent values people and connections more than numbers. Sure, numbers are important, but people are far more valuable.

My room is pretty much ready, although when parents and kids come in the walls may be barer than they expect. A lot of what I hang on my walls I create with the kids during the first few weeks of school. We learn our Daily 5 reading and writing routines, we learn about blogging and commenting, and we learn what it means to be part of a team. What I do have hanging up we'll talk about as we talk about being a team - being honest, caring for each other, and taking responsibility for our actions. Hopefully as parents read what's up they'll understand what's truly important to me. Much more about kids and much less about grammar rules and such.

So while I'm not quite as excited as I will be on Sunday, no butterflies in the stomach yet, I'm still pretty excited to get back to school and meet my kids. I plan on working hard and making this one of the best years ever!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Camp Can Do - My Happy Place

One week every summer since 2004 (minus 2 years off to play nurse for my hubby and to deal with life) I have been a camp counselor at Camp Can Do which takes place at Gretna Glen outside of Mt. Gretna, PA.

Camp Can Do is a pediatric oncology camp. This means that all of our campers, who range from age 8 up through age 17, are either currently in treatment for various types of cancer or they are within 5 years of treatment. When I think about happy places, camp is one of the best. Being part of camp is like being part of a bubble where everybody loves and cares for each other. Camp is so not about the cancer - it's all about the kids just being kids. We swim, fish, hike, do arts and crafts, have campfires, eat S'mores, and scream about the daddy long leggers in the showers. We go boating and fishing, we push and support each other during Adventure Challenges, we learn new things (like how to play the guitar or dance), and cheer each other on as we try things we've never tried before. There are picnics, a dance, and a talent show. Honestly, picture a typical camp in your head, and that's really what we are. You'd think that our campers would be angry, would expect special treatment, and would say, "Why me????" after all they've been through, but that couldn't be further from the truth. These kids fill up my bucket every year with their amazing zest for life, their desire to give back, and their love and support for each other. I never truly appreciated life until these kids taught me how. And to see the kindness and support they have for each other; well, it's something you need to experience because words won't do it justice.

This year was the 31st year kids had the chance to go to camp, and hundreds of kids have benefitted from the love and support of their family at, but Camp Can Do has some challenges ahead of us if we hope to add even more kids to our family. Earlier this year the American Cancer Society (ACS), a major funder of pediatric oncology camps all of the country, made the decision to cease funding these camps:

In addition to the lack of funds directed towards childhood cancer, ACS recently cut programs that specifically were aimed at benefiting children with cancer. The stated purpose of dropping these programs, as alleged by ACS, is to ensure that a cure for cancer is found sooner. The cut in these programs will effect children with cancer and college students who had cancer. Yet another example of how ACS simply utilizes children to attain significant wealth and then ultimately forgets all about the smallest warriors. This should come as a surprise considering the amount of money that ACS has on hand.

What this means for Camp Can Do, a patient camp, and Camp Can Do II, a four day camp for siblings, is that if we want to continue providing this opportunity for our kids we now have to raise the money ourselves. While the directors, assistant directors, counselors, and medical staff (one doctor and five nurses) are all volunteers, it still costs about $700 per camper to attend patient camp for the week.

If I ever win the lottery Camp Can Do will be set for life, but until then we could use some help. Please check out our website or like our Facebook page to see how things are going and to participate in some of the many fundraisers that will be happening throughout the year. Camp truly is one of the happiest weeks of my year, and I appreciate everybody's support to keep it running for many years to come!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Icky Incentive Program

Now that I'm home, unpacked, and have slept off some of my time change jet lag I'm catching up on some of the work emails I missed from the week. As I'm sorting though, I discovered this email:

Good Morning,
Teacher A is putting the incentive that is attached in place for this school year and wanted to share it.  I think it would be great if the entire 4th grade adopted it.  Fact fluency is huge in Common Core in the primary grades but we will not be reaping the benefits of the focused instruction for a couple of years, so this is a great way to get our students actively involved in their learning!  Thanks, Teacher A!

Here's the attached incentive:

Dear Parents,

Welcome to fourth grade math! Students are expected to enter fourth grade knowing their basic multiplication (0x0 – 9x9) facts. Basic fact tests are timed and are a part of the math grade for each marking period. A fun classroom incentive is in place to encourage students to study and/or review these facts at home. Students will earn a sundae as well as other incentives as they master their facts.

Fact Quiz - Date - Sundae Piece

0’s and 1’s - Fri. Sept. 6 - bowl
2’s - Fri. Sept. 13 - Ice cream scoop
3’s - Fri. Sept. 20 - Ice cream scoop
4’s - Wed. Oct. 2  - syrup
5’s - Tues. Oct. 9 - syrup
0’s – 5’s - Wed. Oct.16 - Pick a treat 
6’s - Fri. Oct. 25 - candy
7’s  - Fri. Nov.1 - sprinkles
0’s – 7’s - Thurs. Nov. 7 - Pick a treat
8’s - Fri. Nov. 15 - cherries
9’s - Wed. Nov. 20 - whipped cream

Sundae Party – Thursday, November 21!

1. Students must earn all parts of the sundae to receive the sundae. (My note - in a separate email we received a coloring sheet that is to be hung up in the classroom for each student. Students will color in their Sundae Piece when they pass the test.)

2. Most of the above quizzes will have 20 problems. However, both 0’s – 5’s  and 0’s – 7’s will have 40 problems. Students will need to earn a 90% to earn their sundae part. They will have 2 minutes for 20 problems and 4 minutes for 40 problems. (Note - When students begin the district tests in multiplication, they will only have 3 minutes for 50 problems.)

3. “Pick a treat” day is a choice of a candy or a prize from the classroom bucket.

4. Students will be allowed to take the test more than once. However, students will need to stay on schedule and continue with the next fact even if they have not completed the previous one. Makeups can be done anytime.

I'm not even sure where to start with my concerns. I've never used incentive programs in my classrooms for anything with the exception of those students who had behavior plans in their IEPs so this whole situation is making my eye twitch. Then, we're going to publicly put everybody's achievement, or lack thereof, on display. And then there's the part I bolded in #4. If this is a program to learn and master math facts, why are we moving students on before they have actually reached mastery?

So I'm reaching out to all of you for some help.

First, I need resources that will help the people on my grade level team understand that rewards like this are not the way to help our students meet high expectations. 

Second, I know I need to have high expectations for my math students, and I know that part of having a growth mindset is being willing to understand that you can learn and grow when you have an area of weakness. But the whole idea of participating in this incentive program (which seems more like a requirement and less like an option) is leaving me with a pit in my stomach. If I am required to participate, how do I make this more of a growth minded, learning opportunity for my students as opposed to a "oh look, you didn't pass another test and you can't color in another part of the sundae" situation?

Third, I could use some words of advice. Am I over reacting? Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? Is those one of those times where I shouldn't pick the battle? 

I know so many of you have written about this on your blogs so I'm hopeful that you will chime in with some suggestions, ideas and advice for me.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Power of Connecting

Honestly, I already knew how powerful being connected is, but I love being reminded just how amazing connectedness really is.

I've been connected professionally for about 3 years now, but personally I've been connected for almost 6. In October of 2007 I joined Weight Watchers' online program and timidly ventured out onto the message boards for the support of people who were on the same journey I was ready to embark upon. Remarkably, I connected with 6 ladies from across the country, and we supported each other, from afar, as we all worked to develop healthy habits. While we all eventually moved on from Weight Watchers, we continued to connect via email and now through Facebook. 

Our little cross country gang: from Washington, Illinois, Arkansas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Maine, have become a support for much more than weight loss.  Deaths of parents, health scares, job changes, divorces, kid issues - while we're not right down the street, we've been shoulders to cry on and the arms that support. We've also celebrated - graduations, new jobs, engagements, weddings! Even though we "barely know" each other, according to some, these fabulous ladies are some of my best buds.

Over the last few years I had met 3 of my friends, those from Maine, Connecticut, and Louisiana, but I REALLY wanted to meet my friend Kim, who lives in Washington. But that's an expensive plane ticket from PA so I just kept thinking about how we might make our meeting happen. Then my hubby and I were able to book a trip to Las Vegas for the world pet association trade show. When I told Kim about it her first words were, "I'm so there!" And sure enough she make it happen!

You'd think there would have been some nerves, but no. Kim's sister asked if she had any worries about me being a crazy slasher, and she said nope. We've talked so long and about so many things, it really felt like I was meeting an old friend I hadn't seen since elementary school. And that's exactly what it was. From the moment she walked into the hotel lobby there were squeals and hugs and there wasn't a single moment of awkwardness. Our beautiful friendship, built solely online, was truer than some I've had with people I've only known face-to-face. We're already making plans for our next visits to our home states - most definitely a priority now - and even more Skyped and Hangouts are also in our future. 

So if you've ever wondered, "Should I put myself out there online? What's in it for me if I get connected?" my answer to you is relationships. Sure you may learn some new professional tips and tricks, but the people you will meet and friends you will make will be far more lasting and impactful.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Appreciating Everything

As I type this I'm about 34,000 feet in the air heading to Las Vegas for a trade show for my husband's business, and the fact that I am extremely lucky is not lost on me. Despite all of the challenges of the last year we are doing well enough to be able to afford a trip that allows me to take pictures of the different clouds we study from ABOVE them! How cool is that? Some cirrus, some cumulonimbus - I've got a bunch to share with the kids next year!

Staring out at the clouds has got me thinking about being appreciative, both for the things that I have and the  little things I get to experience every single day. Even when I was struggling the most I could remember, as I drove down the road, that some people will never get to smell the sweet smell of honeysuckle floating in their windows as they drive. I get it every day! And even when it's mixed with skunk smell it gives me the chance to be silly with my friend and come up with a new Yankee Candle scent - honeyskunkle! Do you think they'll go for it?

While I know several people who love the hustle and bustle of cities and think that 3 star hotels are camping, I live for nature. I often think about how amazing it is that I can drive just a few miles to experience some pretty incredible things, if i have to leave my house at all! There are people who have never heard a cat bird, never seen a bald eagle's nest, never hiked up to a waterfall, or never smelled a dairy farm. Ok, so that last one may not be at the top of everybody's to do list, but it's an experience some people will never have. I know that there are people who will feel the same way for me because I have never experienced the hustle and bustle of their city and discovered the sweet little restaurants and markets. And that's okay - because they appreciate that as much as I am thankful for my little spot out in the country.

So while I peer longingly out the window trying to figure out where we are and hoping desperately for THIS to be the flight where I FINALLY see the Mississippi River (I think I may have missed it when I nodded off, but I can still dream!) I will think about how hard we worked to get here, and I'll get excited about having some fun these next few days. 

PS - More to appreciate once we got to the hotel! Unlike most of the hi-rise hotels, we were assigned a room in the Bungalows of the Tropicana. We're on the top floor, the third, and we have a balcony overlooking the pool. Simply beautiful! I wonder if this luck will follow us to the casino?

Friday, July 19, 2013

Classroom Grants

I'm very lucky in that my school district is supported by an education foundation. The foundation, supported by local businesses and citizens, provides scholarships for seniors and grants up to $2,000 for teachers in our district. I've submitted a grant every year since the program's inception, and I was lucky enough to have my very first idea selected for funding. That year I received 6 Flip videos cameras, and my class did a variety of projects that we posted to our class website. It was a very successful first step into movie making, but my students have come a long way since then.

My other submissions have not been selected, and as I watched the local news report at noon I was shocked to see a "Learning Matters" news piece on the very concept that my teammates and I proposed in our latest grant. Due to high levels of anxiety and lower levels of physical fitness, we proposed sensory cushions and stability balls to use on and in place of the chairs in our classroom. We were able to find suppliers that would allow us to purchase 40 cushions and 45 stability balls, enough for almost our entire team if the other teachers chose to participate, for a little over $2,000. While the foundation felt like our proposal did not merit funding, the local news felt a teacher's effort to do the exact same thing were worthy of a spot in their education program. If this was good enough to be on the news, then dog-gone-it, why wasn't it worthy enough to be in our classrooms??

I've written grants for the foundation program, but I've never searched outside my district to fund programs for my classroom until today. I knew there was a website specifically for teachers to request funding, but do you think I could remember its name or figure out the right keywords for it to pop up in a search? Heck no! This is where my wonderful Twitter friends stepped in. I sent out and quick tweet, and wah-lah, there was my answer!

And that is how I managed to procrastinate today's to-do list! Having been pointed to Donors Choose, I was able to set up my information and submit my project for approval. This was an extremely simple process - seriously, I don't think the people behind Donors Choose could make this any easier. And I'm actually very excited at the idea of completing the thank you packet should my project get funded! If you've been thinking about asking for funding for your classroom but were worried about doing it I say go for it! They walk you through the process, and even if your project doesn't get funded you're not any worse off than you were before you started, right? And perhaps your next idea will be "The One" that a donor would like to fund.

According to the email my project will either be posted within 5 days, or I will receive an email asking follow-up questions. Either way, I've taken a step to try and improve the learning environment for our students. Hopefully Donors Choose will find our ideas meaningful enough to approve the project, and donors will find it valuable enough to fund it. Fingers crossed, friends!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Interactive (?) Notebooks

I've really been trying to check in with my new reader (which I am LOVING, by the way) every day and keep a collection of great ideas that will help us meet our goals for the upcoming school year. One thing I keep running into is the topic of Interactive Notebooks.

As far as I can see Interactive Notebooks are either journals or binders where kids cut out different shapes, glue them to the pages, and take notes on them. Most of the posts I've seen have shown teachers utilizing them in math, but it also appears as though you can make a variety of different versions for all subjects. You can check out this page and this page or do a quick search to learn more about them if you've never seen them before.

It's obvious that these types of notebooks are pretty popular considering how often I'm starting to see them pop up. I actually used them with the homebound instruction student I was working with at the end of the year and didn't realize it. From everything I've seen, these notebooks are very detailed, they obviously take some time to create, and they give kids a great opportunity to practice cutting skills which, in my opinion, don't get practiced nearly enough. It's certainly a unique way to create your own textbook specifically designed for whatever you're teaching. So there are some interesting points those these tools.

I guess my confusion comes with the use of the word interactive. According to thefreedictionary.com there are several different definitions of the word. They include:

in·ter·ac·tive  (ntr-ktv)
1. Acting or capable of acting on each other.
2. Computer Science Of or relating to a program that responds to user activity.
3. Of, relating to, or being a form of television entertainment in which the signal activates electronic apparatus in the viewer's home or the viewer uses the apparatus to affect events on the screen, or both.

inter·active·ly adv.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
in•ter•ac•tive (ˌɪn tərˈæk tɪv) 

1. acting upon one another.
2. (of a computer or program) characterized by immediate two-way communication between a source of information and a user, who can initiate or respond to queries.
in`ter•ac′tive•ly, adv.
Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary, © 2010 K Dictionaries Ltd. Copyright 2005, 1997, 1991 by Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

Now in looking at these definitions, I'm not seeing how these notebooks are interactive. Aren't they really just a fancy way for kids to take notes? According to Carter, Hernandez, and Richison (whose full document you can find here) it seems that's what they are:

"Interactive notebook. (in’ter-ak’-tiv no¯t-bu˙k) n. 1. A collection of
notes taken from reading, listening, discussion, and viewing, including
corresponding responses, either in graphic or written form. First
introduced in Addison-Wesley’s History Alive! 2. Daily journal-type
recording of student-written class notes from reading, lecture, and
discussions, and the reflective and metacognitive responses students
make to their own note taking."(http://www.heinemann.com/shared/onlineresources%5CE02611%5CCarter02611Sample.pdf p. 3)

As I look at these and think of my students so many thoughts pop into my mind:
  • How is this different than the note-taking I did in high school?
  • What about kids with fine motors skills who can't write in small boxes?
  • What about kids who can't keep up with note-taking in class? Are these as effective if the students are able to participate in the discussion but aren't taking their own notes?
  • Besides taking notes and flipping the paper, how do the students affect some sort of change with these notebooks? What else do they do?
  • It seems as though there are very specific notes that go in these notebooks. Do the students have to include exactly what the teacher wants in the Interactive Notebook or are the students free to write / organize their notebooks in a manner that makes sense to them?
  • How much paper does this use?
I'm truly not trying to come off as a smart-aleck or knock Interactive Notebooks because it's obvious that there are many, many people who find them to be an extremely effective tool for their classrooms. But I've read through a lot of posts, and I'm not getting it. While they look neat, I'm just not sure I see how they are transforming classrooms. Maybe those of you who are more knowledgeable can help me understand Interactive Notebooks a little bit better.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Multiple Measures Trade Day

My district offers something we call Summer Trade Days. By attending a summer professional development day we get to trade off a work day during this school year. This year we could trade up to three days during the school year by spending two days working on planning for our new Common Core based curricula and spending one day learning about Pennsylvania's new teacher evaluation system.

It's called "Multiple Measures" and it's based on Charlotte Danielson's framework for teaching. While I'd love to stick a little link in right about here so that you can go and learn a little bit more about it, I can't because the state really hasn't released any official information about it yet. So... yes... I'm going to be evaluated using a new system starting at the end of August, I was trained in this new system today, but the state really hasn't officially made all of the decisions it needs to make in order to fully implement the system or release official information about it. And they may still change some of the details I learned about today. I know, I know, I was shaking my head, too. So here's what I learned today:

  • Next year 85% of my evaluation will be based on observations, and 15% of my evaluation will be based upon my school's PVAAS scores
  • During the 2013-2014 school year my district will need to determine the elective data we'll be using starting the following school year. This might be local assessments, DIBELS, portfolios and projects (my vote!!!) or nationally recognized standardized tests. 
  • During the 2014-2015 school year, 65% of my evaluation will be based on observations, 15% will be based on the school's PVAAS scores, and 20% will be based up on whatever we decide to use as elective data. 
  • After three school years I will receive an average of my students' PVAAS scores. My evaluation will then be 50% observation, 15% school data, 15% my teacher specific data, and 20% elective data.
  • A teacher cannot be considered failing solely upon school or student test scores.
  • If teachers, like me and my partners, co-teach subjects then our teacher specific data will somehow be determined using a special, yet-to-be-developed formula that will be able to exactly identify which student learning belongs to each of us. (??????)
And after soaking all of that in, here's what I think:
  • I can't change any of these items so I'm not going to waste time complaining or pouting. It is what it is.
  • While I want my students to do well on their PSSAs (that's our state tests) I really could care less about their one score in terms of my teaching. I am so much more worried about the effort and the strategies they use every single day, I'm not going to stress myself or my kids out about one stupid test.
  • I am excited about the fact that I may have the opportunity to use portfolios and projects as part of my evaluation. My two teammates and I were thinking about how what we already do could be adjusted to be better evidence. (And we were already thinking about changing up a few things anyway so this will be perfect!)

There were two big points that I thought of today that are my biggest concerns. "Your evaluation is not based upon one observation," was a statement I heard several times today from our presenter. My concern with that is that I have not had a formal observation in about 5 years, and I may have had 1 or 2 ten minute drop-ins per year during those same five years. Yet my evaluations have given very detailed information about my teaching. Where has that information come from, and where will my administrators get the detailed information they need to complete the new year-end evaluation forms? This line of thinking made me realize that I need to be much better about "tooting my own horn" or providing evidence to show my students' learning. This is not something I've done in the past for my evaluation, but it's going to be very important in the coming years. The positive thing is that I know I will be able to use my class blog and student blogs to help with this.

There was another point, which I expressed on my end of day survey, but with my happiness project in mind I'm not going to mention it here. If my teammates and I continued to be singled out or if students are not receiving what they need, then it will be time to speak up publicly. But for right now I'm going to keep my fingers crossed and hope to see some change this year.

In keeping with my whole happiness project I really tried to remain positive about the day today even though it was entirely sit-n-git and I really didn't receive any new information. I'm not going to let myself stress over things I can't change, I'm going to continue to focus on my students, and I need to let go of my worries about others. My hope is that this new evaluation system will get more people into my classroom so that I can get more constructive suggestions about how to meet the needs of my students.

How about you? What types of changes are you seeing in your teacher evaluation systems? How are you and your coworkers dealing with these changes?

Saturday, July 13, 2013

One Little Word Revisited

It's always sort of amazing to me when puzzle pieces that make up life all just kind of fall together to make the perfect picture at just the right time. As I mentioned in my last post, I've really been thinking a lot about my happiness lately, and that has caused me to do a lot of reading, reflecting and, although they have been teeny tiny baby steps... changing, too.

At about the same time as I was writing my Happiness post, my close friend shared this quote (which she typed as she watched and rewatched the scene) from Eat, Pray, Love:

"We haven't had much communication lately and its given me time I needed to think. A friend took me to the most amazing place the other day its called the Augustium. Octavian Augustus built it to house his remains. When the Barbarians came they trashed it along with everything else. The Great Augustus, Rome's first true great emperor- how could he have imagined that Rome, the whole world as far as he was concerned, one day would be in ruins. It is one of the quietest and loneliest places in Rome. The city has grown up and around it over centuries. It feels like a precious wound, like a heartbreak you won't let go of because it hurts too good. We all want things to stay the same, we settle for living in misery because we are afraid of change. We are afraid of things crumbling into ruins. Then I looked around in this place at the chaos its endured. The way it's been adapted, burned, pillaged, and found a way to build itself back up again and I was reassured. Maybe my life hasn't been so chaotic, it's just the world that is. The only real trap is getting attached to any of it. Ruin is a gift, ruin is the road to transformation even in this Eternal City. This has taught me that we must always be prepared for endless waves of transformation."

The part of this quote that really hit me was the line that talks about living in misery because we are afraid of change. It's very easy to spend so much time pining for the "way things used to be" that we forget it's possible that what we have now and what will be are and could be even better. If we're willing to open our eyes and see what's happening. That's what I was doing - so busy looking back I forgot to notice truly how good things are now, despite the challenges.

Another piece fell into place during an appointment yesterday. I haven't talked about it here on the blog, but on February 1 I fell while we were on our field trip. Hard. I did some significant damage to my leg. Sadly, and this has been confirmed by several different professionals, if I had broken my leg I would be healed and back to normal by this point. Unfortunately that isn't the case, but I was able to start a new round of physical therapy at a new location yesterday. This puzzle piece was important to be because I have truly been at a loss since this injury. I haven't been healing and haven't been moving forward. Meeting with my new (although I've worked with her before) physical therapist helped me feel that, while my future prognosis for my knee is not a positive one, I can move forward from the injury and get back to doing things that I had enjoyed.

As I was sitting here continuing to read my books, to make some plans, and to think about everything that's happened the last few days, it dawned on my that I couldn't remember what my One Little Word was for this year. I had been so mindful of my word the last two years, and here I couldn't even remember what I had picked for 2013! Imagine my surprise when I looked back to my blog post and saw that I had picked SELF! My post from that day late in December doesn't sound a whole lot different than what I've been saying here, I'm just much farther removed from myself than I was just 6 months ago. Seeing that was like a little kick in the pants. "You knew what was going on! Why have you waited this long to do something about it?"

I guess my only answer to why I've waited is that I'm finally ready to do something about it. We'll see how this little happiness project goes towards getting me back to finding my self.

Thursday, July 11, 2013


One of my favorite summer time activities is sitting outside on my back patio (actually, it's really a little concrete slab, but I call it my patio) and reading. While my summer selections dabble in a bit of everything I am definitely a fiction person, and I tend to lean towards realistic fiction stories and fantasies.

But this summer I'm seeing a different trend. To say that the last year has been challenging for us (see here and here just to highlight two) is a little bit of an understatement. Even though there were many successes, like this one and this one, I've having a hard time seeing the forest through the trees. Prior to this year if you had asked me to describe myself I would have said I was a happy, positive person who always tried to look for the bright side of the situation. Now, I'm not sure I would say that about myself.

Sadly, the many challenging experiences of the past 13 months have changed the way I react to the world around me, and I do not like the person I've become. While I was in school I was able to "fake it 'til I make it" and I could put on a happy face for my students and most coworkers. Unfortunately that meant that those closest to me, my husband and closest friends, usually got me not faking it. I know that I haven't been the best person to them, and I know I have not been the best person to myself.

All of this has really had me thinking since school got out, and while I started off with my usual fun fiction reading, I've shifted gears this past week. My book selections now are nonfiction and deal with mindset and happiness. I know I've changed as a person, I can see the areas where I've changed, and I'm wondering what I can do to move beyond these situations that I cannot change.

I started with Carol Dweck's book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. I've read articles by Dr. Dweck, mentioned her many times here on the blog, and I've had the book since Christmas break, but I never made the time to read it. Now that I'm working my way through it I'm realizing how much of a growth mindset I have when it comes to my students and my role as a teacher and how much of a fixed mindset I have when it comes to my personal life. I'm often too scared to try new things because I'm afraid of failing or what people will think of me, and failures in my personal life often cause me to react with an "I can't do it so why bother" response. Now that this has slapped me in the face, my goal is to be more mindful of how I am responding to situations and try to approach them with the same growth mindset I would use when I'm approaching the classroom.

The more I read, the more I realize that the fixed mindset I have in my personal life, combined with some of the things that have happened, has lead me to blame outside circumstances and feel and act helpless. As I type that statement, as I SEE it written in words, I realize exactly how ridiculous it is. While I certainly can't prevent others' actions, I have complete control over how I respond to every thing that happens. But that's not how I've been acting. It's taken me a LONG time to realize (admit?) this "poor me" attitude, but now that I have I know it's up to me to do something about it.

With that thought in mind, I've also been reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. I'm not usually one to read two books at the same time, but these two really seem to be complimenting each other given my current situation and realizations. While my situation is certainly nothing like Gretchen's, it's just interesting to get other people's perspectives on what makes a person happy. I'm starting to come up with my own list as I read, and I'm already thinking about how my own personal happiness project can help me get to where I want to be.

So why did I write this? I guess it was mostly because it was time for me to admit what was going on. Kinda like GI Joe used to say at the end of his cartoons when I was little: "And knowing is half the battle!"

I know. I've put it out there for the world to see. Now it's time to act.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

My Feel Good Folder

To my utter joy, and hers, my wonderful student teacher was approved for a 5th grade position at my building. I am so excited for her, and she is already jumping at the bit to get into her new classroom to start setting things up. As somebody who went back to get her teaching certification she was older than other student teachers by a few years, and that maturity made her extremely reflective about her practice. I know this is going to serve her well, and I'm so excited to work with her to help her get off on the right foot.

Over the past few days she's been texting me to ask me what I thought she needed to get and where she should start. First, I told her to relax and enjoy her summer, and then I started to create a list of little things she may want in her room to get her started on the right foot, all of those little things that you may not realize you'll need as a new teacher. As I was browsing through my TweetDeck this evening to get more ideas for this list, I ran across this post about staying positive by Aviva, and it got me thinking about one thing I have that I think every teacher needs.

During my first year of teaching one of my students drew an amazingly funny comic strip for me. As I was sharing it with coworkers one of the more experienced teachers said, "You should put that in your Feel Good Folder!" I had never heard of such a thing so I asked her about it, and she told me it's just a folder where you put those special things that make you feel really good about being a teacher. So I grabbed a bright red file folder, labeled it Feel Good Folder, put the comic strip in there (after laminating of course!), and put it in my filing cabinet.

Like most of you I get many, many pictures, emails and notes every year, but the Feel Good Folder is a little different. The contents of this folder are those extra special things, the ones that really touch your heart. On days when I'm hurting and finding it hard to remember the good things about being a teacher, I turn to this red folder. It's name fits -- I can't help but feel better when I look at this small, special collection from the past 16 years. And I can't help but remember all of the wonderful reasons why I am a teacher.

So as you are reflecting upon your successes from the past year, take some time this summer to recharge by thinking about all of the things that you already have in your Feel Good Folder. Even if you don't have a physical folder (yet) the memories will recharge you over the summer and get you excited to plan for your next big adventure in the fall.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Staying Put

I never really thought of myself as principal material, but about 10 years ago I went ahead and added my K-12 principal's certification to the master's degree I was getting at the recommendation of one of my professors. I'm very glad I did it, but I've never actually USED this certification. I'm lucky enough to work in a district where teachers are given many opportunities to fill leadership positions so I've never felt strongly enough to leave the classroom and pursue something else.

And then about 3 weeks ago an internal job listing popped up. This listing was for a coaching / supervisory position. While I wasn't exactly sure what this new position would entail, it sounds like the job that I had been waiting for to finally try out my admin certification. As appealing as it sounded, however, I wasn't exactly sure if I was ready to leave the classroom or my amazing team. It really felt like we were just getting started and had so much more work to do. So, stay where I'm comfortable or take a shot at a new challenge?

I had 4 days to decide whether or not to apply.

I'll spare you the hemming and hawing that went on through 3.5 of those days, but in the end I sent my letter of interest and resume off to Human Resources. I received a polite email thanking me for my interest and letting me know they'd be in touch about the interview process.

About a week after that I received my second email scheduling my interview for June 11 at 11:00. The nervous butterflies fired up as soon as I saw the subject line, but thankfully I needed to get through those crazy last 4 days of school. So I knew the interview was coming but I chose to pretend it wasn't there. I will also spare you the gory details of the shopping trip that was necessary because I didn't have a single "interview appropriate" piece of clothing. Thankfully I have a wonderful teammate who is a shopping pro, and she worked her magic; I believe, however, that I was more of a challenge than she let on. (My lack of the girl shopping gene could be a topic for another post sometime!)

Tuesday morning rolled around. My preparation for the interview really focused on two things: looking up information on the new multiple measures teacher evaluation format being rolled out by the state of PA (Ha! There's nothing.... check for yourself) and developing MY list of questions. The hemming and hawing and debating with myself had gone on most of the last two weeks, resulting in very little sleep and lots of worrying if I was doing the right thing. I wanted to make sure I got enough information about the position that I would be confident it would be the right fit if I was to leave the classroom.

After waiting about 50 minutes the first candidate walked out. I knew right then that I was not supposed to have this position. The other candidate is amazing, somebody I look up to, and this person could do incredible things with their vision in this position.

Following a brief introduction of the process (I knew and have worked with every person on the panel) I answered my 11 questions based upon the competencies they identified for the job. One thing that become increasingly obvious to me was how much I love and believe in what my team is doing. So many of the questions were answered with success stories from my team, challenges from my team... it was all about our team and how we're helping kids. It seemed to be another sign that I was supposed to stay where I was at.

We wrapped up with my questions about the position, and that was an interesting experience. Many of my most important questions didn't have answers, and thankfully I was told that. Another important question I asked was not answered so honestly, and that was the "nail in the coffin" to me. If somebody can't be honest with me during an interview how were they going to be as a colleague? So I left feeling extremely proud of myself for the answers I had given, but I also felt as though 1,000 pounds had been lifted off of my shoulders. I knew this job was not the right fit for me, and my heart was happy to know that I'd be staying in the classroom.

Today my gut feeling was made official. I received the call from HR telling me they had selected somebody else for the position. I probably surprised our HR Director when I told him that I was thrilled to hear that, but it's the truth. The candidate they picked will do an amazing job (I am truly looking forward to working with this person and getting suggestions from them), and my teammates and I will do an amazing job for our kids in the classroom.

It was truly an honor that I was one of only two people selected to interview for the position (who knows, maybe I was one of only two crazy enough to apply!), and I am very proud of the answers I gave and how I conducted myself. More than anything this helped me realize how important my kids and my families are to me, and I am thrilled to be staying put despite the challenges we continue to face.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

So I Bet You're Excited, Aren't You?

Over the last few days we've had several parents in and out of the classroom helping with lunches and parties, and over and over I've heard,

"I bet you're excited for summer!"
"Bet you're ready to have some quiet time!"
"Bet you're ready for a break!"

Now, I'm not going to lie. There were a few times during the last week I did go into the bathroom just so I could have a little quiet, alone time. (Have't we all!?!?) But unlike some teachers I was not waiting at my door, packed up, and ready to run out for summer vacation. While I'm certainly happy to be able to sleep in and not have to wear grown up shoes for a few months, I can definitely say I wasn't excited to say goodbye to my kids yesterday.

There were lots of different reasons for my sadness. Lots of thinking and wondering personally, but more are related to my kids. Never mind the questions about will they read over the summer or will they practice their facts.

I worry about what some are going home to for the next 77 days.
I wonder who will take care of them and where they will get their next meals.
I hope that they will all be back.
I wish that some would get the help they desperately need.

Every group of kids is special, on that we can all agree. But this group touched me a little bit more than others. The kind notes of appreciation from them and their parents and the hugs at the end of the day seemed to mean a little bit more. I hope that they are all safe over the summer, and I hope that I see all of their smiling faces back in the fall.

Now.... where DID I put that summer "to do" list???

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Reflecting on Change - Part 4

This is the fourth in a series of posts I started for Middleweb. You can read the first parts of our story herehere and here. This fourth post is being published here on Teach 'n' Life for the first time.

Brighter Skies

In some ways the middle point of the school year can seem very much like the beginning of the new year. While the floors aren’t sparkling and you already have a tremendous amount of knowledge about your kids, there’s still something special. Maybe it’s that the kids have finally started to trust us, maybe it’s the fact that things are finally starting to “click” for them. Whatever the reason, I find the middle of the year to be a really exciting time because I’m anticipating all of the growth that can happen and the goals that can be achieved over the next 4.5 months.

Even as we’ve been teaching, the three of us have each spent a great deal of time researching ideas about how we could do things differently in our classrooms and what we could do to transform learning for our students. Some of these ideas have been tremendously successful, and some have been epic failures. But even in those failures we’ve been able to pick up the pieces, learn from what didn’t work, and prepare even better ideas for “the next time we try this” whether that’s this year or during the 2013-2014 school year.

And yet, even with all of the successes we’ve had this year and even though so much time has passed, the clouds are still here, and the thunder still rumbles.

We’ve been labeled by some. You’re “the low team” and “nothing good is going to happen when parents figure that out,” they say. They can talk all they want. My teammates and I took on this issue head on at our Parent Night in August. We explained why our team looked different, and our feelings about why the other type of team set-up didn’t work well for all students. One point that we made is that our team was not just about academic levels; students were also placed on our team because their third grade teachers felt they could benefit from fewer transitions or opportunities to be positive leaders. We tried to fight fire with fire, and by being open and honest with the parents about our team and the many reasons students were on it, we took the rumor-mongering power away from the nay-sayers.

There’s anger from those who teaching assignments were changed and disdain from individuals who wanted to stay in the same place but now have to work with “those people.” This can be especially frustrating, because as you’ve read, we wanted teachers to have a voice. Our co-workers chose not to speak up and left the assignments to the administrators. We’ve grown to accept their anger and unkind words. We’ve found our own spot to each lunch, we spend time with those who are positive and avoid those who are negative, and most importantly, we focus on the kids. Truly these angry people are simply looking for attention and by not giving it to them, we come out on top.

In addition to the clouds and the thunder, there is some rain. We’re officially on school improvement due to the scores of our subgroups, and this label coupled with our district’s stated focus on having a growth mindset has presented presents numerous challenges in terms of instruction, intervention, and reporting.
  • Here - look at the test results from last year’s state tests, see what areas your kids need to work on, and create an instructional growth plan to meet those areas of weakness.
  • But here’s the new progress report with the skills greyed out in certain marking period. So no matter what your instructional growth plan said, here’s what you’ll be teaching each marking period.
  • This year we’re all going to have a growth mindset about our students and our learning. We’re going to focus on student strengths and how we can help them be successful.
  • But wait, your students will be grouped based on single sets of test scores. And here are the tests that your students won’t pass, but they need to take them anyway even if it makes them cry. Oh, and they’re required to graph their scores so they can see how they do. Don’t worry if they only get 7 or 8 right and that upsets them. If their scores go up 4 points total on reading and math, we’ll give them a pencil and that will make everything all better.

While there is a tremendous focus on test scores and our hands are seemingly tied, we have chosen to continue to make our priority the emotional well-being and growth of our kids. It can be fairly risky to fly in the face of guidelines to use specific scripted programs for guided reading groups, but we have the data to show that our students’ needs are beyond the needs of those scripted programs. And we also have the data to show what we are doing, strategy and skill based groups, is allowing our students to make progress with both their fluency, decoding, and comprehension.

In addition to all of the outside storms we are weathering, we’re creating a few of our own clouds. Because we know people are waiting (hoping?) for us to fail, we realize that we are putting a lot of pressure on our own shoulders. The realization that you’ve asked to work with the most struggling learners during these times of warning lists and evaluation by student achievement is a scary prospect. But scarier than that is knowing the situations from which these kids come from. Some sad, sad situations. The thought of creating a loving, caring, growth focused environment for a student who has never known one is far more daunting than making sure they pass the test. We want to do what’s best for the kids, and we want to show all of those people who’ve doubted us that they were wrong. That our kids CAN be successful when given the opportunity to do so. Using a strength based approach to planning has really helped the three of us share those pressures, and since “All of us are always better than one of us,” we have been able to share insight about the kids so we can come up with plans that will meet all of our students’ needs.

Despite the fact that I seem to be sharing a lot of challenges, there is blue sky filled with white, puffy, fair-weather clouds. And sunlight. These are our kids. Kids who refused to try at the beginning of the year are running up to the board to solve problems, even if they aren’t sure they actually have the right answer. These are the kids who are raising their hands, sharing their thoughts, and taking risks even when their ideas are different from others. And these are the families. Consistent, open lines of communication have allowed us to develop relationships with parents and guardians to help the kids complete homework, address concerns, and talk through problems. We’ve also got several parents coming in and volunteering their time in the classroom to make the students’ learning experiences even better.

And it’s the three of us becoming better teachers. We are constantly questioning what we are doing, why we are doing it, and if there’s a different strategy or tool we could us to help our students make connections and apply the information they’re learning.

I think this meme I found on Facebook really sums up the crazy “weather” we’ve had these last 5 months:

Just like the actual weather, we know there will be bright beautiful days, and there will be challenging stormy days as the year goes on. In the end, if we continue to focus on the kids, work with their parents as partners in learning, and continue to be open and honest with our communication with our team we will be able to hold our heads high and be proud of what we have accomplished for our kids.

Friday, May 10, 2013

A Letter to Mom

I don't usually make a big deal about making Mother's Day presents. It's not that I don't think the kids should do something special for their moms. With so many different circumstances in families we spend a lot of time throughout the year thinking of and recognizing my students' caregivers so it's not so difficult on that one day for my kids who don't have moms or aren't allowed to live with their moms.

Today we had a variety of projects going on: some students were working on writing pieces, some on Google presentations, some on Social Studies research - it was the usual organized chaos of my room. A neighboring teacher dropped off a "Letter to My Mother" paper so I told the kids if they were finished with their required assignments they could work on a letter for their mom if they wanted. I also offered to edit if anybody needed help.

About 15 minutes later Mr. B. walked up to me. Mr. B told me in his dry sense of humor, very early in the year, that he was "not a writer" and has stuck with that despite the great pieces he has written throughout the year.

So I was all ready to edit his piece and send him on my way. I read his letter. And fought back the tears. And showed it to my teammates and the TSS across the hall. This young man, who was adopted at birth wrote the most beautiful letter to his mom that I have ever read in my entire life.

Part of me wishes I had made a copy for myself so I could reread the amazing way how he described how thankful he was that she took him into her arms and promised to love him and take care of him and laugh with him. How he treasures her and is thankful she is his mom. And then the other part of me is glad that the two of them have that letter to share just between the two of them forever.

For somebody who is "not a writer" this sweet and caring young man put the most eloquent words onto paper to show his mom how much he loves her.

It was the perfect ending to teacher appreciation week. I don't teach so my kids do well on tests. THIS is why I teach.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Reflecting on Change - Part 3

This is the third in a series of posts I started for Middleweb. You can read the first parts of our story here and here. This is part three that originally appeared on Middleweb.

Change in the Forecast

When my two teammates and I made the original proposal to our administrative team and our grade level team, the key to our proposal was that teachers would have a voice. We really wanted all the fourth grade teachers to look at their strengths and weaknesses and come up with a teaming plan that matched teachers with those students they felt best prepared to teach.
It’s well documented how challenging the change process can be for some people at every organizational level. But it was an eye-opening experience to live through it first hand. We could not understand why everything was being done so secretively at the decision-making levels, and we really weren’t sure which stories or which people to believe. Our plan for teachers having a voice backfired, and it seemed that the same thing was happening with our desire for open and honest communication.
As the 2012-13 school year came to a close, my teammates and I still didn’t know if our suggested plan was actually going to be acted upon in some way, with or without teacher voice. We didn’t know what our teaching assignments were going to be; we didn’t know if 4th grade teacher teams would be reorganized, and we didn’t know how our students would be placed on teams.
It was only after a confrontational discussion that we finally found out that the three of us would be teaching all four subjects as we requested in our proposal. And while the intent behind the changes was never officially announced to all of the fourth grade teachers, our administration did take the step to reassign teams and the subjects some were teaching in order to make the proposal work.
People are angry

As school started this fall, it was clear that people were angry about that. People are also angry that we shoved our fourth-grade teacher community out of its happy place and into rough and murky waters. And I know people are chomping at the bit for us to fail this year so they can say, “See, I TOLD you that would never work!” All of this is simply motivating us to work harder to make a successful year for our students.
Change will never happen unless people are willing to take all of the wonderful discussions happening among teachers in the virtual world, bring them into face-to-face settings and start putting them into practice in real classrooms. After reading this you’re probably wondering, “Why? Why would any teacher continue forward trying to lead change in his or her school after going through these experiences?” Two words: THE KIDS.
Some lessons we’re learning
We have to be strong enough to stand up and do what is right, even though it may make us unpopular. Our kids deserve that much. If you relate in some way to our story — and you probably do if you’ve stuck with this narrative to this point — then you might be looking for ideas or advice about pushing for change in your building. Here are some of the lessons we have learned. And we’re still learning!
 Make sure you put the kids’ best interests first and keep coming back to that commitment when the going gets stormy.
 Research, research, research. Make sure there is a substantial amount of support for (or a lack of research against) your proposal for change. People need to see that you are truly prepared and are not just coming to them with a random idea that you think sounds good.
 Ask for opposing viewpoints and actually listen to them. Change what doesn’t work and advocate for the points about which you feel strongly. Do this very early and at a personal level. If you’ve read our story, you know that we could have done this sooner.
 Be willing to compromise. While you may love your idea, it might be improved. It may be too big a step for your organization. A baby step is better than no step at all.
 Develop a tough skin and be prepared for some storming. It’s inevitable when you suggest pushing people out of their comfort zones. Some “colleagues” will insult you, your idea and your teaching style. The good news: most will grow over time and continue to move through the process. If your change proposal is sound, many will come to see its wisdom.
 Continue to seek out those who haven’t been willing to change and push them to be open and honest about their concerns. If they don’t have any foundation for their negative behaviors, calling them on it repeated times will bring most of it to a stop.
 Finally, and this is a hard one, if your organization is so strongly entrenched in the old ways of doing things or in always putting adult interests ahead of children’s needs, then it may be time to find a place to work that’s a better fit for you.
Weathering the storms
My teammates and I have had some really awful days. We have often questioned why we think we can make a difference. But each time these doubts creep into our minds, we focus on the real reason for this change. A little more than a month into the new arrangement and the new school year, our 4th graders are already benefiting tremendously from the changes we’ve pushed for. The kids are the ones who matter. That’s why we are here. That’s why this school is here.
For the past month, we’ve encouraged our grade-level team to move forward — to realize that every meaningful change process includes a storming phase. We continue to assure them that the storms produced by climate shift will help us all grow and become more focused on our students’ successes academically, emotionally and socially.