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 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."( 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.