Saturday, October 30, 2010

Remember those Dreams of Summer?

This post is the first in, hopefully, many taking place as a conversation between Jeremy Macdonald @MrMacnology, a 5th grade teacher in Oregon, and Pernille Ripp @4thgrdteacher, 4th grade teacher in Wisconsin; two educators who for the first time are attempting a no grades classroom as well as limited homework.  We work under the confines of our districts but with passion and belief that this is the way forward.

Hello Jeremy,
Remember this summer when we had our dreams in place of how we were going to make this work, this no grades thing, and how we knew that with the right amount of dedication it would be a smashing success?  Well, guess what, the school year started and it is hard!  I still believe in it, don't get me wrong, this has been a massive educational philosophy switch for me and one that I am incredibly passionate about.  I believe I am doing the right thing by focusing on the learning and not the grade, but who ever knew that removing most worksheets, tests, and averages would making teaching so much more time consuming?  Now when students finish a project I have to find the time to speak to them about it or at the very least write lengthy feedback on their work.  No more checking an answer-key and slapping a subjective percentage on it and calling it a day.  I have to study what they learned, how they divulged it, and more importantly figure out where to go from there.

So maybe that is why many educators do the grade; it is easy.  After all, you don't have to change how you teach a student if the end result is just an average number based upon a semester's performance.  You can just hand over the grade, watch the disappointment swell if it wasn't the one they hoped for and then move on.  Parents are happy because they recognize what the grade means, or think they do anyway, and students know exactly where they fit into in the hierarchy in the class.  End of story.  Yet, when you throw away the grade something enormous happens.  At first, students are a little bit surprised, perhaps even dismayed, and definitely confused.  I don't know how many times I have had to discuss with students why the feedback I have provided does not translate into a percentage.  Some get it, most don't at this point in the year.  One student in particular keeps asking me how he can earn a good grade and is perpetually disappointed when I tell him that it is about the learning not the grade.  So what do you say?  Do you tell them that they are doing amazing and some would consider that to be an "A+" performance or do you stick to your line and keep pressing on with learning goals?

And the work!  Papers piling up, goals, checklists, notes from conversations all crowd my desk.  With conferences coming up, I am starting to shake a little in my boots.  Will I have enough evidence to prove the academic rigor I am subjecting my students to? Will students be able to explain what they have been learning or how it affects their future learning?  Will I be able to communicate effectively to doubting parents that although less homework is sent home, their child is still learning just as much?  And don't get me started on report cards!  How will I translate their knowledge into a grade?

I know this is the right path, but why must it be so hard?  I know change is never easy but this makes so much sense.  So where does one go from here?


Friday, October 29, 2010

Do We Dare to Show Ourselves?

The split personality syndrome; an affliction that most teachers suffer from.  We all have our "other"s sides that the students don't see; maybe it is the side that has tattoos, that swears occassionally or that lives passionaltely for domething that society has not deemed 100% acceptable.  Whatever it is, we hide it, in order to be proper teachers.  Not because we are told but it is expected of us.  You see, being a teacher is not just a job; it's a life.

I first remember when it happened to me.  Walking in as a practicum student, realizing the immense importance of my future job, and knowing that not all sides of my sparkling personality would see the light.  Not that there is some dark hidden life that I cannot confess to in the daylight, but rather those things we don't speak of, those things we do not do in front of others.  At least if those others are fellow educators, parents, or students.  Taking those first steps into the building, shelving away part of my personality, inducted me into something special; the cult of teaching.

Teachers are pristine, angelic creatures that live passionately only for their students.  Society has put us on such a high pedestal that most of us struggle to even reach it, let alone remain on it.  We are not just role models for the students when it comes to being passionate learners, but also when it comes to how we live our life.  So we don't swear (ever!), we certainly do not drink alcohol, smoke, have tattoos, go-go dance, or whatever it is that we do as part of our other life.  We keep it secret, speaking only of noble adventures and how they strengthen our pursuit to be the very best teacher we can be.

I know of very few other profession that puts such high moral demands on its participants and yet we are supposed to willingly accept it because we were the the ones that chose to be teachers.  No longer allowed to be fully human, we instead become caricatures of ourselves, always smiling, always perfect, never gritty or tarnished.  And of course, I agree that we shouldn't swear, or drink alcohol or any of those things in front of our students, but we are allowed as adults to go out and have a drink and a dance on Saturday night without looking over our shoulder and worrying about who sees us.  And while I relish the fact that I am role model and take it very seriously, I have also found that students respond to us better when we let them in a little; show them a little of our true personality, warts and all. 

So I wonder when teachers will have their fall from grace?  When will society realize that the expectations to us as human beings are so ridiculously distorted that no one will want to even try to be that perfect.  Is this something we must just accept or is there a way to turn it around?  How do we continue on as educators but perhaps show ourselves as fully human?  How do we escape the cult of teaching, the personality we are expected to have, or do we not want to? 

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

What Do you Mean I am Not the Center of Attention?

This year I stepped out of the limelight.  Hard, cruel, and totally uncomfortable but I am learning to just be quiet.  And not so that I freak my students out with long stern stares or raised eyebrows, although that does happen on occasion.  But so that students can talk, learn, and explore.

You see when a teacher talks a lot, and teachers usually love to talk, students turn into drones.  We know all of the material already so we are so eager to tell the kids all about it.  Some call it excitement over curriculum, I just call it teacher mouth.  We talk to get them ready to them learn, we talk about the learning they are doing, and then we talk about what they have just learned.  Have we ever thought that maybe us being quiet would let them learn better, more, faster?

So I decided that this year would be it.  After reading brain research that shows that students pay proper attention to the same amounts of minutes as their age; oh yes, I have 9 minutes of attention time, I knew I had to stop talking.  Immediately, me ego tried to stop me; how will they ever learn anything if I don't tell them all about it?  Well, that has been the great part.  Students seem to be actually learning more this way.  They are talking to their classmates about concepts, they are figuring things out on their own and most importantly; they are eager to get to work and learn something.

As the proud parent that lets go of the bicycle so junior can peddle on their own, I am learning to let go of my own ego.  We are so highly educated that we think the only way the students learn best is if we teach them.  Wrong, the best way for student to learn is to explore, and fail, and then explore some more.

So while my classroom may be a little more noisy, ok, a lot more noisy, this year, and lessons may be taking a bit longer because the students have to discover the answer rather than me pointing it out to them, there is also more excitement, more come on and do it and more get-to-it-ness then there has ever been before.  So even though I catch myself sometimes talking too long, I am also getting better at letting go.  After all, I know this stuff already which is why I  am the teacher, now let them have their turn in the spotlight.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Well, Mrs. Ripp....

I have been working a lot with my students about trust and how we must trust each other in the classroom. We do this through meetings when we get a chance or small conversations through the day. Today, as we sat in a circle, we once again discussed how we need to trust each other when it comes to learning. The students know this lesson and can recite it but I always wonder; do they understand it? Well, ask and you shall receive...

Students agree that they would never mock another child for getting a math answer wrong and neither would they roll their eyes if someone wasn't able to perform at a certain level. When asked why they wouldn't, they told me that they knew better than that and that they do not want to hurt each other. I then asked whether they would mock someone at recess - silence. Shy glances, shifty looks and finally a couple of students started to speak in vague terms about other students and how they misbehave on the playground.

After some discussion, students admitted that they too can lose their temper with each other and don't act the same way at recess as they do in the classroom. I, of course, finally asked them why? The answer: "Mrs. Ripp, you are not out at recess." When I wondered how that mattered, they answered "Well, we always behave around you because we are afraid of you..."

Apparently, I have some thinking to do.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

We are Superheroes

We are superheroes. Or at least in the eyes of some students, we are. We can do magic such as melt styrofoam cups, solve complicated algorithms in our head instantaneously, and know exactly what is happening behind us when our backs are turned. We are all-knowing, knowing who needs a hand, a soothing word, a joke. We come to the rescue of students that are lost, disheartened, upset over a fight with another child. And we love endlessly, always ready to share , hug (if allowed), laugh, and even cry. We are superheroes.

And yet, sometimes we forget that, and a raised voice stains our image. A sharpness of tone shows that we might be a little bit evil. A lost temper may prove it once and for all. And the students watch, and talk, and remember. And yet, they continue to believe because we build it back up. We continue our quest to make them superhuman, to make them believe in themselves. To pass on our powers as healers of the world, changers, movers, learners, teachers. We do it all and we do it out of love, respect, necessity. We let our students become our mission because someone has to show them that there is faith that they too will become superheroes one day, that they too will believe in others, that they too will change a life. So believe in yourself so that others may believe in you as well. The difference is being made, just look into the eyes of your students and you will see it. They believe in you, now believe in them.

How Homework Destroys

It finally happened; a parent decided to disagree with my new take on homework. They do not feel that I am providing enough and thus am doing a disservice to the students by lulling them into a fake sense of security in their skills. My response at first was indignation; how dare so and so question my fantastic educational shift in philosophy. Why are they not enlightened or believers as well? And then it dawned on me; I have not shown them the way.

I spend a lot of time speaking to students about what we are doing, why we are doing it, and what the goal is for their learning but not enough explaining that to the parents. And while I hope that parents have faith in me, I cannot take it for granted. I am, after all, messing with a system that has been set in place for many years and that these same parents are products of. So, of course, my system may come as a shock at first, and without the proper explanation it will continue to be so. After all, parents have been trained to think that for every grade level you figure out homework load by multiplying the grade level with 10 minutes. So by 4th grade, students should at the very least be doing 40 minutes of homework a night. And yet, my students don't. They do most of their work in class, even staying in for recess so that I may help them, and I never willingly send home a piece of homework that I know they will struggle for hours with.

Homework should be practice, a showing of skills. It should not be a two hour time consumer where both mom, dad and the encyclopedia gets involved. I explain this to my students and the sense of relief is visible in them. They know that I will challenge them in class but at home they may pursue life instead. So if you work hard at school then the reward is rest, family time, and a pursuit of happiness. And it works. My students are still learning everything they should for the year, albeit in a more hands-on manner. I am shying away from worksheets and instead having conversations about learning. Our favorite tool is our dry-eraseboards that allows me a quick check in for understanding. And the students are noticing the difference. No longer dreading the afternoon because I will continue to haunt their day. No longer dreading school because it means so many extra hours of works. No longer dreading learning because they are realizing that learning is something you do at school and that it doesn't come form worksheets.

When I recently welcomed 9 new students into my room, one "old" student told me that she was looking forward to seeing how the newbies would react since I "teach a little crazy." And perhaps that is true. I am loud, obnoxiously so at times, and I have high standards. I push kids to learn, I push kids to understand, and then I back off. I let them think about it, let the learning resonate within them, and then I challenge them to dredge it out again the following day.

By no means, am I the perfect teacher. I have many years of learning to come, but I do know that I am on to something here and I stand at a fork in the road signaling a massive shift in my whole educational philosophy. I believe these students are learning, I believe I am preparing them as well as any other teacher, and most importantly I believe I am letting them be kids at the same time. My students know that if something is homework it is for the benefit of their learning and is important to do, not just another piece of paper that their teacher didn't get to in class. They know that I only assign it if it is truly valuable, and not just something for me to use for grades. They know that we will meet and discuss their learning, always knowing what is missing, what is accomplished, what the direction should be. They know that if I assign something to them it is because they have the skills needed to do it. Do yours?

Friday, October 22, 2010

5 Days of Aha - Royan's Aha Moment

This week's aha moment is shared by Royan Lee, a fantastic teacher whose blog I stumbled upon this summer.  Many times, I end up referring back to his posts or sending it to others because of his writing and the work he does with his students.  He is a must read and must follow as well as being a grade 7 literacy teacher in Ontario, Canada. His professional passions include contemporary literacy, social media, and technology integration in the classroom. You can find him on twitter at @royanlee or on his blog at spicylearning.wordpress.com.

5 Aha Days Learning from Kids
I am perhaps the luckiest teacher in the world. The thing that makes me so blessed is that I teach a group of 108 eleven and twelve-year-olds who I learn from on a daily basis. And I don't mean this in the indirect way, as in, I am learning from my baby by changing their diaper that we all come full circle, or I am learning from my dog that we're all a bunch of animals that need to be loved.

I mean that I literally receive instruction from these kids. They are remarkable. Sometimes I listen to their responses to an open-ended discussion question in class and get floored. Or I read one of their blog posts and tears well up in my eyes. Aha moments? I've had a few with them.

It was sometime during this past week where I felt that everything went *click* in my four classes. It was like the first month and a half with collaborative discussion, multiple understandings of 'text', iPads, blogging, and social networking were all a novelty and then, bam, everyone suddenly realized what the point of it all was. It was as though my mantra of Creativity, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Communication suddenly became normalized rather than unique. Preaching to practice. Lesson to living, breathing.
This tipping point dawned on me over the span of the week.

On Monday I read a post on one of my student's blogs that levelled me. Then I witnessed the passion spread like wildfire. Seven other students read her post and wrote homage-worthy versions of their own.
On Tuesday I had a student approach me after class: "Um, Mr. Lee, I have, like, this idea? You know how we're, like, working on procedure writing in English and healthy living in Health? We should, like, do a procedural writing thing on how to live healthy!" Guess what their new assignment is?

On Wednesday I mentioned to the students how astounded I was to witness their creative use of spelling, punctuation, and grammar on Buzz. I still wasn't completely sure whether I was alright with them subverting the English language in this manner. Well, wasn't I surprised when they so eloquently persuaded me that they wrote this way on Buzz because it was a completely different context for writing. One student's words were: "It's a place to talk like we really talk. As long as we know not to spell like that in a different situation, like on our blogs, or writing a letter to the principal, it's OK."

On Thursday I had a student ask if he could make a movie on his Mac in lieu of his procedural piece of writing on healthy living. "And don't worry, I'm still gonna meet the success criteria." After hearing this, another student pipe in to ask if they could use Google Docs to pen a collaborative novel.

On Friday I was given what I now realize was a gift of a question from another student.
"Mr. Lee, can I use my iPod to video our class sometimes?"
I didn't really know how to answer at first. I figured she wanted to make a movie about our class. I just asked her why.
"I don't know. I just wanna be able to watch it at home because it helps me learn."
If you expect kids to lead, they often start leading. That's what I notice. That's my Aha moment.


Monday, October 18, 2010

I am the Reform

I am the reform when I trust other teachers.

I am the reform when I stand united, and not divided.

I am the reform when I discuss, assess, and learn with my students.

I am the reform when I trust in others.

I am the reform when I ask for observation, feedback, and growth opportunities.

I am the reform when I discuss, even with people with whom I disagree.

I am the reform when I reflect, reject and reinvent.

I am the reform when I ask for help.

I am the reform when I learn more.

I am the reform when I am not afraid.

I am the reform when I listen and I speak.

I am the reform when I believe.

Are you the reform?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Teacher Can Dream

This blog is in response to Tom Whitby's rally for blogging about education reform.  While this may not be an answer to the major problems, it does serve a purpose in discussing a cornerstore of the misconstrued"tenure for life" debate - observations by principals and how teachers would change those if they could. 

It is time for the observation schedule to start at my school and I know I am on the list, after all, this is only my 3rd year teaching and I am therefore still on probation and under observation.  The first year I was observed twice, last year once, and this year also only once.  While something beneficial always comes out of my observations, here is what I wish they really looked like.

  • I wish there were more.  I am not an excellent teacher, I have many years to grow from, so any feedback is important to me.  However, when that official feedback is only given once a year after a 30 minute observation, major things may go unnoticed or not be discussed at all.  What a missed learning opprtunity.
  • I wish some were surprise observations.  I sweat over my observation, I ponder and torture myself as I prepare only to realize that I am in essence putting on a dog and pony show.  My students act totally different than they normally do, not because I ask them to, but because the principal is sitting in my classroom and that is uncommon.  So therefore my lesson looks, feels and is different.  It is not in order to deceive but an adaptation to the situation.  If observations were more frequent and less formal a true snapshot of my teaching would be gathered much more easily and I could be observed in a genuine manner rather than in a staged one.
  • I wish there were other observers.  Most principals have a view of education that has been set by their own educational experiences as a teacher.  Feedback, therefore, is often derived from this knowledge set.  If others come in to observe you, differing ideas or viewpoints will be brought to light. How amazing would it be if a different principal came in to see you or someone not in administration?  Think of the various feedback that could be given.
  • I wish principals still taught.  In Canada, some principals such as @MrWejr are required to teach a class while working as assistant principals.  I think this is an incredibly powerful idea.  If a principal still teaches, their observations on your teaching will be much more relevant because they are not relying on experiences in their past, but rather in their present.  They become more relatable and also more current in their work and can thus provide up-to-date feedback and encouragement.
  • I wish the conversation continued.  Often a post-observation conference is scheduled, held and then nothing else is discussed until the next year.  In my fantasy, goals are written and discussed throughout the year.  And not loose goals either but actual tangible, observable goals decided in a partnership with the observer.  That way I know specifically what to work on, how to achieve it while being provided a chance to discuss progress and setbacks with someone.  The learning therefore continues after the observation is officially completed.
While these are my major wishes, I wonder what observations would look like if teachers were able to shape them instead of being told how they should look.  Imagine the conversation and reflection that would be gained from such a task.  So fellow educators, what do you wish for, what is your fantasy and more importantly, how do we make it a reality?

Give Them Strength to Grow - Chris's Aha Moment

This week's aha moment is shared by Chris Wejr, a K-6 principal in Agassiz, BC, Canada.  Chris is always quick with an understanding word, encouragement and advice even in non-school matters.  Never too busy to discuss or care, he is a wonderful person to have in your PLN.  This is his first time as a guest blogger do make sure you comment, follow him on Twitter at @mrwejr and add his blog to your must read list mrwejr.edublogs.org

“We don’t know who we can be until we know what we can do.” - Sir Ken Robinson

How can we truly see the potential of our students if we fail to provide the environment to bring out their talents?

I have always wanted to be a high school teacher and I was exactly that for 7 years. You never know where your life will lead you and, while completing my Master’s Degree, I was offered the opportunity to work with an amazing principal at an elementary school. Roxanne taught me to seek out the strengths in people and bring these talents out from within and opened my eyes to the power of strength-based, rather than deficit-based, teaching and leadership. My aha moment came in my first few months of being an elementary school teacher and a new vice principal.

When I did the tour of the school I was to be a teacher/vice principal, I met Daniel (pseudonym). Daniel had a smile that was contagious but was disengaged and struggled in school; the reason I met him that day was that he was in the hall after being asked to leave class. I never asked him why he was in the hall, I just started asking him about his life outside of school; we talked about music and friendships in the few moments we shared together on that day.

The next year, I was to teach a 5/6 class (in addition to the vice principal duties) so when we were creating the classes, I requested that Daniel be placed in my class. To be honest, in the first month, I really struggled with the transition from teaching 17 year-olds to teaching 11 year-olds. Many of the students had behaviour, social, emotional, and academic challenges so I spent many hours bouncing ideas off Roxanne and other teachers trying to find out how to reach these kids. I specifically started to talk about Daniel as he was so withdrawn in class - always refusing to take part in any learning activities and that smile that drew me to him seemed to have disappeared. She asked me what I knew about him; the truth was that I knew very little about him other than he struggled in class and liked music. She encouraged me to find out more about him; find out what he loved, what he was good at and try to bring that out in him.

During the next week, I spent a recess having a snack with Dan. I found out that he lived in a nearby community in which he spent two hours on the bus each day, lived with his Grandmother because his mother was far too young, and we shared a common interest in Johnny Cash. We spent much of the recess singing a variety of Cash songs and just laughing. Later that day, I was speaking with the First Nation Support Worker (Nelson), sharing with him about the moment that had occurred, and he let me in on another strength of Daniel: First Nation drumming and singing. He said this was something that he recently witnessed in his community but maybe something that we could support. The FNSW asked me if he could take Daniel and a few others to work on this interest; I believed this was a great opportunity so for 2 weeks, Nelson spent a few mornings a week drumming with Daniel and two others. What progressed after this changed the way I teach and live my life.

I asked Daniel if I could come watch one recess. I was blown away. Daniel was so into the drumming and singing that he would actually be sweating with pride as he was doing this. A few weeks later, I asked him if he could perform for our class - he unfortunately declined. Nelson encouraged him to sing and drum with him in front of our class. He nervously agreed and blew us all away when he performed; other students cheered when he finished and then asked if they could be part of “his group”. Daniel was now not only working with his strengths but also leading others to do the same. His group added girls and grew from 3 to 6 and then 8, including 2 students from another class. They played for our class every Monday morning, to start our week, and every Friday afternoon, to finish our week. They even gave themselves a name, Sacred Connections, and began to play for other schools and community events.

The moment that brought me almost to tears was right before Christmas. Each week, 1-2 new students would join up front in the singing and drumming. We often don’t see the impact of small changes but right before Christmas, the group actually had no people to play for, because every single student was up there singing with Daniel! To create an audience, I invited Roxanne and a grade 4 class to come and see the performance. We all sat there in awe of what Daniel had done not only as a performer, but also as a leader.

The other parts of Daniel’s school and life were drastically changing too. His friendships grew, his efforts in school improved and he became very engaged in learning activities. His reputation grew as a leader in the school and community and his group was asked to play at a local pre-Olympic Games (2010) event and in the spring he was asked to perform with Pow Wow drummers at a huge event in front of our entire school and community! Daniel had gone from a disengaged, quiet student who refused to take part in the learning to a proud leader and confident learner in our school.

That year was one that changed my life. It was not just one aha moment but a series of moments that shaped me as a person. I want to thank Roxanne, Nelson, and most importantly Daniel for teaching me that, as educators, the most important thing we can do is provide the optimal conditions for people to grow, bring out their strengths, and truly flourish.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Don't Be the Pebble

This week I was told by a dear friend that she envies how positive I am in in the face of all the changes happening in my classroom. She didn't know how I did it. Instead of lurching into a long philosophical debate about my chosen attitude, I simply answered, "I don't want to be the pebble that starts the rings of negativity."

So think about your words; stop yourself before you unload the negative,the tiring, the unhappiness. Of course, reflect and vent about it, but don't spread it. Be conscious of yourself and your affect on others because all it takes is one negative person to undermine a whole school. Don't be the pebble.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

But Mrs. Ripp, Blogging is Boring

My students are now seasoned bloggers, or so they would like to think anyway. So as I was congratulating myself on a job well done, noting how much they were loving it, imagine my surprise when one student exclaimed just the opposite, "Do we have to blog, Mrs. Ripp, it is soooo boring." For anyone that has taught 4th graders you know exactly what this sounds like coming from a 9 year old boy that would rather fight jedis than listen to me teach.

Ahh, but aren't you the fun teacher, some people may think. Well, I like to think I am, sometimes, or as my husband would say, I lull myself with delusions of funniness, but anyone who has ever tried to play the funny teacher when the curriculum gets tough, knows how difficult it can be. So there I stand with my blogging pride in my hands, racking my brain over what I did wrong. I get it; this kid is not a big fan of school to say it mildly, in fact, he told me I was the perfect teacher when I stated there would be little homework in my classroom if students worked hard in school. Much to his surprise, he doesn't understand that if he doesn't work during class, then there is work to be completed at home. Strike one against me; I went back on my promise. I also promised him that blogging would be fun; strike two, blogging is only fun when you can write about whatever you want and get lots of comments from people all over the world. However, people don't leave comments if you don't blog.

So what do you do when students hate that spectacular idea that you love so much? Well, my initial reaction was to put on my big girl pants, along with my teacher voice, and tell him it's his own fault for not writing blogs that people want to comment on. Glad I stopped that train-wreck. I then thought about it some more and realized that I don't know what to do. Sure I have some minor ideas such as asking him how I can make it fun, giving him free time to write, promoting his blog on #comments4kids and so forth. But how do you reach a kid that already has decided by 4th grade that school is not the place he wants to put in his energy, his dreams, his wishes or his time? I leave that question up to you, my fantastic PLN, what would you say to this child if you were me? How would you help him realize what excitement he can gain from learning? And most of all, how would you reach him before it really is too late?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Noun Challenge


Invest in Yourself

I am nothing special.  Just a teacher trying her hardest in making her students believe that they too can be something.  That they too can move mountains, change the world, be somebody.  A small quest but a meaningful one.  Some call me an idealist, others overly optimistic, but I think of myself as human.  I believe in those kids entrusted to me.  I believe in their passion, their desire to learn, their ability to learn.  I work too many hours, I wonder, think, digest their learning, their skills, their failures.  I take responsibility, I beat myself up if a lesson fails and I celebrate loudly with my students when they triumph.  I live life fully in my classroom, embracing all of the emotions of life, investing myself into my this classroom, making sure my students know the true Mrs. Ripp, warts and all. 

The reward is immense.  My students tell me about themselves.  They show me their work.  They trust me with themselves.  The setbacks are also big, though.  I can be on an emotional rollercoaster due to the mood of my classroom.  I can work too many hours and not get enough sleep.  I can obsess over lessons, obsess over a student's situation that is out of my control, and I can beat myself up over not being good enough, there enough, just not being enough.  So last night my husband told me that I was working too much, missing out on moments with my 21 month old daughter.  And he is right.  With all the changes that have occurred in my classroom, this has been by far the most work I have ever put in for the first 7 weeks of school.  I am glad I have put in the hours, I am glad I have invested myself but the balance has been bumped somehow.  The balance of life and teacher has been tilted in the wrong way and I am feeling drained, listless, and just plain old tired.

So instead of complaining about it, I am realizing this is normal.  When you invest everything you have into your classroom, you sometimes forget to keep a little for yourself.  So while I do live for this job, for these kids, I also have to live my life.  I must allow myself to go home at the end of the day sometimes with no work to do.  I must allow myself to take the weekend off and not go into my classroom to do more.  I must allow myself to live, just as I hope my students do, when I do not assing them another worksheet.

To be the best teacher I can be, I must also be the best person I can be.  And that person needs her family more than anything else in the world.  Without time with my family, I lose my base, my sanity, and that affects everything else.  So this weekend I plan on going to the farm and picking a pumpkin with my daughter.  I plan on petting the goats, reading a book, and cooking dinner.  I plan on listening to my husband when he speaks and maybe even going grocery shopping.  And I will relish these ordinary life moments, come back renewed, rejuvenated and ready again to invest in my kids.  After all, they deserve the best me that I can be, and so do I. 

Monday, October 11, 2010

Best Advice for Conferences

Recently I was asked to be guest moderator for the fantastic new teacher chat (#ntchat) hosted by Lisa Dabbs @TeachingwthSoul Wednesday nights.  While the name may be deceiving, this is certainly not just a chat for new teachers, but for all teachers looking to find new ideas and to share their expertise.  I was very happy to be a part of this chat because the topic was preparing for parent/teacher conferences.  The chat was lively as you can see from the archive found here, so I thought I would share some of my best ideas for how to have the best possible parent/teacher/student conferences.

  • My best advice: Don't make this your first contact with parents!  Whether it be email, phone, letters or whichever method of contact you prefer; make sure you have reached out to all parents before they show up for the conference.
  • Invite the student to the conference.  Many schools are turning to student-led conferences, which is an idea I want to try as well, but if this makes you uncomfortable or does not fit into your school, at least invite the child.  After all, if you are trying to discuss solutions and give feedback then the child is a vital part of that conversation.
  • Plan, prepare, and know exactly why you are giving the feedback you are planning on giving.  If you seem ill-prepared, parents will notice.  This is an important conversation and should be valued as such.  I write notes for myself for each student using this planning sheet.  This way I know what I want to highlight and I also have a paper trail.  We write focus goals together and the next day the parents get a copy of my notes.
  • Dress the part.  Again, this is a big deal to students and can be a great way to share successes and give feedback.  Don't let your clothing distract from the task at hand.
  • Remind, remind, remind.  Parents are busy so send home a reminder or two or three, or have students remind their parents.  If you have an inkling someone may not show up, call them.  If it is a transportation issue, offer to come to them. 
  • Be flexible!  Not all parents can automatically come to your planned dates.  I have had phone conferences, morning meetings, late night conferences.  Whatever it takes to communicate is worth it to me. 
  • Start and end with something positive.  You want everyone to feel good about this experience but you also want to be honest.  All kids have great qualities and success stories; share them!  Do not be afraid to bring up things that may appear critical, after all, this is a learning dialogue, however, leave the conversation on a positive note as well.  Sometimes it is best to let parents speak first, try to hone n on their social cues to see if that is the case.  That way they will be able to be fully engaged when they have spoken their piece rather than waiting for their turn.
  • Be honest!  If you feel a student needs to work harder, say so, but say it in a constructive manner.  Highlight the effort being made and how you feel you can work together to improve it.  Some parents will need a lighter phrasing than others; trust your instinct and know your relationship with them.
  • Have samples ready.  To illustrate highlights and "normal" work, use actual work from the student showing their progress and what you are basing feedback on.  
  • Do not use teacher language.  We may be fluent in the land of acronyms or reading comprehension but others are probably not.  Don't assume that they will know what working on fluency means, rather explain it in a direct manner.  
  • Leave room for questions.  Make sure that there is plenty of time for discussion and questions during the conversation at the end.  Sometimes surprising knowledge comes to light or even more successes are found.
  • Be on time and stick to the schedule.  We are all busy so do not leave people waiting; it is unprofessional.  That also means you may want to schedule a short break for yourself to eat or just breathe.  If a conference is going over the time limit, offer to reschedule at another time.  Parents will appreciate your respect and promptness.
  • Do not be afraid to involve others.  If you have a mentor, ask them to sit in on a couple.  I have had my principal sit in on several and have valued his feedback.  Also, if you are worried about a conference make sure someone sits in with you.  If a conference ever turns argumentative or unprofessional do not be afraid to ask to reschedule with someone else present.
  • Embrace them!  I love conferences because it allows me to show off how incredible my job is and what amazing students I have.  Yes, they may be tiring, and a lot of work but let your enthusiasm show; you will be surprised at the response you get.  After all, I have the best job in the world and I am not afraid to say that.
So what did I miss?  Please add your best advice in the comments, we are each others' best teachers and mentors.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Each Day is Special - Nancy's Aha Moment

This week's aha moment is shared by Nancy Ehrlich @NancyTeaches, a passionate teachers who's blog is a must read. Nancy and her writing about reading and teaching has inspired me on more than one occasion, so do follow her on Twitter and add her blog to your feed. She says about herself, "I have been a teacher all of my life.  I can’t remember when I wasn’t a teacher.  I started my own school in my backyard when I was in fourth grade.  I showed up at the neighbors’ houses for parent-teacher conferences!  Currently I am a reading specialist and former head of school who returned to the classroom. My class and I looped and stayed together for fourth grade.  This is my 29th year in the field of education."

When asked to describe my “aha” moment in teaching, I was flooded with a plethora of images.  Imagine a montage of every day in your teaching life. My memories are a swirling mist of faces smiling at me as I remember the different children, classrooms and settings that filled the years.  Each day as a teacher was special.  Every child that crept into my heart defines my career.  I could never choose just one!

Of course, there have been bumps along the way.  There were days that I wanted to pull my hair out and run screaming from the classroom.  However, when I look back, a child was never the catalyst.  They were my soft-spot to land even on the worst of days.  Once engaged with a student, the rest of the world faded away.  They were all that mattered.

I remember Josh who came to me as a third grader and couldn’t read.  His parents and I put our heads together and came up with a plan.  We worked as a team and built his skills as well as his confidence.  By the way, he is doing well in college now.  I remember Taylor who was the perfect little angel in the classroom, but I knew she wasn’t learning.  Through testing, we discovered she had severe ADD and with the right plan, began to flourish.  I was so grateful I trusted my instinct.

I remember on September 11th the world changed for everyone, but for one of my students, it was intimately personal.  When this student’s parents called me to let me know what was happening and people were scrambling to get to school and chaos was everywhere, this child and I went for a long walk.  (I was a head of school at this point and could do this.) Throughout the next month as she grieved for her lost family member, she and I talked and read books together.  I hope I was a place for her to heal.  I will never forget her showing me the dust from the collapsed towers.

Then there was Izzy!  She and I bonded the moment she put her hand in mine as I guided her to the classroom.  She came to me significantly below grade level and was raw from the experiences she had in a former school.  Together we taught each other so much.  She is on grade level now and I learned to be a better teacher through working with her.

I walk into a classroom each day grateful.  George E. Fraiser said, “No one should teach who is not a bit awed by the importance of the profession.”  I’m thankful that each day gives me “aha” moments of joy.  I search every day for a way to connect with students, so that when they leave me, they will remember that learning is always filled with “aha” moments.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Yes, You Look Fat in Those Pants

I am an open book.  I wear my heart on my sleeve, smile to the world and rage directly at the people that need the rage.  I am driven by emotions both good and bad and have a very strong instinct that guides many decisions.  I was probably born this way but can also accredit this personality to my mother, who never backs down when it gets tough, who always speaks her mind, who is always honest.  I am the friend that will tell you that those pants make you look fat but I will also tell you when something you did was amazing.  I am that wife that tells their husband when they are whining but will also show genuine appreciation for taking the garbage out or buying gas station flowers (they are the best).  I am that teacher that will tell you how your actions upset me and then we will solve it together.  I wish I could say I do not carry a grudge, but I do, however my grudge list is very brief and I intend to keep it that way.

It is not easy being bold, or direct, or honest.  In fact, this society does not reward such behaviors but instead tells you to tone it down, think of who you are offending, or know your place.  Being Danish does not make it easier since it is a trait much-valued in my country and yet over here, it is almost entirely frowned upon.  The trouble I have gotten into because of my bluntness could fill the pages of a very long book, from being booted out of a wedding the week before, to almost being left behind in a Vegas casino, yes, I have made many mistakes.  And yet, I would not change who I am, at least not in a major way.

Yes, I am emotional but that is not a swear word.  Instead, I am exuberant, joyful, and overly optimistic - most of the time.  I am genuinely happy to see you, to meet you, to connect with you and if I am not, you will know.  If I care about you, I will reach out to you.  If I am interested, I will ask.  If you upset me, I will tell you and then try to solve it.  If you hurt me or there is a misunderstanding, I will come to you rather than my colleagues or friends.   I believe in honesty and it is my driving nature.  Sure I get into trouble, a lot of trouble, but I will not change it.  It is time we let our guards down and let the honesty out.  It is liberating to tell someone what you really are thinking as long as you weigh your words carefully.  But do not be afraid of yourself, your emotions, your instincts, after all, they are you.  Do not hide from your directness but embrace it; embrace yourself, and give yourself a chance.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Dear Beautiful Baby

Today you were supposed to have been born.  A beautiful baby, joining your  older sister Thea that does nothing but run around and point at all the babies she sees in the world.  We would have been scared but excited.  Feeling so overwhelmed and yet so happy.  But today is not your due date; that day will never come because I lost you many months ago.

Every day until this day I have thought of how big my stomach should be now. How I wouldn't be able to fit into those pants, bend over to pick up that marker, or even be able to tie my shoes.  I would be getting ready to hand over my students to another capable teacher to welcome you into this world; into our family. And yet, sometimes life doesn't work the way it is meant to work.

I am sorry, there is no heartbeat are the hardest words I have ever heard.  And I think that moment in time will always be frozen, just hanging there, not quite within my reach but there as a mountain in my life.  Brandon took my hand and held it so tight and the tears just came and came.  A magic child, a child we had so hoped for, was not to be.

And yet, life goes on.  I returned to school and had to face parent emails, students that needed help in math, hugs and smiles because that's what teachers do.  We keep going, no matter what happens in our life, we know there are kids that need us and sometimes, truthfully, we need them as well.  And I really didn't tell anyone because I did not want them to ask how I was.  I knew I would be ok, I am not the only one to ever go through something like this, and yet you feel so alone when it does happen.

So with this letter, sent out to the world, I am saying goodbye.  Goodbye to the dreams that would have been with you that were not meant to be.  And thank you; thank you for showing me that maybe having another baby is not outside of our reach.  For showing me that I am incredibly grateful for my soulmate, Brandon, who I know will weather any storm with me.  Thankful for the strength you made me find in myself to carry on and keep smiling, loving, laughing.  Goodbye dear baby, so long.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Letting Go

As this new year is really getting under way, and for me even slightly starting over, I am thinking of all the things I am letting go off.  At first scary and new, now these things are becoming familiar and worth it.  So I urge myself to let go and continue to let go off

  • Grades. Yes, once the cornerstone of my educational philosophy but now I am seeing them for what they are; fictional numbers scribbled on a page that does not let my students know what they excelled at or even how they may improve.
  • Tests for the sake of a grade and being done with something.  Instead they now work as springboards to new learning, explorations and joint adventures.
  • My voice.  Yes I am actually staying more quiet and letting the students do the talking.
  • Rewards.  Imagine a room of 28 well-behaved students that yes may get a little fidgety or even a  little loud but that actually enjoy each other and the learning environment they are creating.  Not punished by rewards as the wonderful Alfie Kohn would say but rather motivated by a common desire to create the best learning environment for all of us.
  • Rule poster.  Oh yes, that staple of classroom walls.  I don't even have one this year, of course, we have talked about it and, in fact, they often change based on the challenge we are doing, but nothing is etched permanently and neatly laminated for the sake of reminders.
  • My markers.  Another novel idea; let the students do the writing.  No more trying to decipher my chicken scratch.
  • Missing all of a recess.  Sure some students stay in to work with me but when we are done they are free to run because kids need to run, not stare at me for some sort of punishment they do not understand.
  • Lectures about behavior.  They get it, they know when they are being too loud, or off task, address it and move on.
  • Structure for the sake of control.  We have a basic structure such as asking to go to the restroom but if you forget, it is ok.  I forget sometimes too.
  • Me being the only teacher.  I think of my room as having 29s teachers plus whom ever walks into the room.  Those kids know something, let them show it and watch them gravitate toward each other for more.
So ask yourself; what have you let go off this year and how has it changed you?  I know that I have a long way to go but this journey is one I gladly get on every day.

Monday, October 4, 2010

So Blogging is just for Fun?

In the past 3 weeks my students have finally gotten to start blogging on their own. We did not take this endeavor lightly and therefore first had to discuss safety of blogging and being on the Internet, see this post on the lesson used.  We also had to discuss how to properly comment on other posts through the use of paper blogs, a lesson I wish I had come up with but which I absolutely borrowed from some fantastic educators and its creator Leonard Low, and how to solicit comments on one's own; after all, these blogs were meant to be starts of conversations and not solitary pieces of writing.  Finally, we were ready.

Our first blog post was tied in with the Global Read Aloud Project and if you visit our kidblog you will notice that many of them do tie in with this.  However, I hope you will also notice something else; how the students have started to type using paragraphs with topic sentences as well as how their blogs appear visually.   See, I am all for creative writing but I also have a writing curriculum to teach so I therefore combined the students' passion towards blogging, and believe me they are blogging in their free time, with my requirements for writing.  So one week was dedicated to the fine tunings of a paragraph, discussing not just the how (they mostly know that already) but also the why.  The result of that week's focus was these introduction posts.  This week we are discussing types of sentences and you will notice, hopefully, later this week how students have to use different types of sentences in their blog posts.

So to those educators that still think student blogging is just for fun, I say, not in my classroom!  Of course, blogging is a blast, after all, how often do kids beg to write more over the weekend or groan when time is up?  Yet blogging is so much more than that; it is writing for an actual audience, not just the teacher, it is learning how to engage in a written conversation, how to constructively criticize writing, as well as appreciate other people's skills and abilities.  Blogging has brought my fantastic students even closer as they reach out and cheer for each other.  Blogging has taught us that it matters that our writing makes sense because otherwise we may not get many comments or questions.  It is teaching us that we are not solitary writers and hopefully never will be.  Blogging for us is a life lesson of communication, writing, connections, and internet safety mixed in with conventions, crafts of a writer, and as well as the writing process.  To us it is how writing is taught with the added bonus of portfolio creation.  So to those that think student blogging is just a fad,  a way to amuse and use some technology, think again; blogging can a revolution in writing if you let it.  Don't stand in its way.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Next Week I Promise

As our goodbye nears in my fantastic 4/5 class, my students are getting progressively rowdier, louder, more fidgety and less able to focus on learning.  Students get overstimulated more easily and sometimes de-escalation takes hours rather than 15 minutes.  With one week left to teach them before I hand half of them over to a new teacher, it was hard not to dread how loud they would end up getting this last week.  And yet, who can blame them?  We have built an incredibly community in our room and real friendships have emerged.  No longer are kids designated by grade level but rather by their qualities and how they connect with others.  They know they have my heart so as my class gets ready for a new adventure, and I silently grieve the loss of these amazing students, here is what I promise:

I promise to always be your teacher, no matter who's room you go to in the morning.  I promise to care for you as long as you let me.  I promise to read your blogs and approve all of your comments as you continue to keep friendships alive.  A promise to check in, to check out when you don't need me, and to help you transition.  I promise to listen to your dreams, adventures, and your fears.  I promise to tell you every day how incredibly lucky I feel to have had you as my kid these past 6 weeks.  You will always be my kid.  I promise to step back, breathe, and understand that you acting out is just because a change is coming.  I promise to cry within moderation, (not sure if I can keep that one).  I promise to smile, to laugh and to tell you just how incredible you are.  I promise to care long after the bell has rung on Friday, the nametags have been replaced and the lockers reassigned.  I promise to never forget this class, this journey, these kids, you.  I promise.

I've Always Been a Teacher - Edna's Aha Moment

Edna was one of the first international connections to my PLN and has been one of the most inspiring as well. Never afraid to lend and ear or give advice, she has been a wonderful person to learn from. Edna is a teacher and curriculum coordinator at an IB PYP school (Primary Years Program) in Melbourne, Australia. She blogs at What Ed Said and is @whatedsaid on Twitter.

I’ve always been a teacher. Not the sort who does the same things year in, year out, though. I’ve always enjoyed change and challenges and been willing to experiment with new ideas.

But I’ve been teaching a long time and I admit there have been things I have done just because I always did them that way. I always liked using computers, but I had no idea of the possibilities…

My ‘aha’ moment came a couple of years ago, when I read an extract from ‘Navigating through the Storm, Education in Postmodern Democratic Society’ by Ron Aviram, head of The Center for Futurism in Education, in Israel. To be honest, till then, I had not thought much about the fact that education in schools hadn’t changed, while everything else in the world was changing rapidly and radically.

Then I attended my first international conference in Singapore, a gathering of 700 IBO educators from the Asia Pacific. What motivated me wasn’t so much the content, as the opportunity to network with educators from around the world and to witness the things that teachers had done in their classrooms and schools.

I started reading online and began to discover some inspirational education blogs.  Soon I had subscribed to quite a number and was reading voraciously online about educational reform and how others were integrating technology into their classrooms.
I started experimenting with web 2.0 tools and implementing them into my teaching. I introduced my class to ToonDoo and Voicethread to enhance their learning. We learned together.  As I discovered new and useful tools, I shared them with my class and with other interested teachers at school.

The ICT teacher at my school was thrilled to have an accomplice at last. We started a voluntary tech group for interested teachers to experiment together every fortnight before school. Our ‘Thinking group‘ which meets on the alternate week had been sharing readings and implementing Visible Thinking and soon the 2 groups began to merge as a 21st century learning group.  Discussions centred on making learning relevant and authentic, including the integration of technology. This is my in-school PLN.

I joined nings, such as Classroom 2.0 and PYP Threads and began to participate online.  Then a friend encouraged me to start writing my own blog. At first I didn’t think I had anything to say. Then I didn’t think I would have any readers. But I pushed forward and was soon addicted. I had more things to write about than time to write them.  I didn’t care if I had an audience or not, the process was part of my own learning.

And then, by far the best thing happened. I had dabbled in Twitter and not yet seen the point. But, once I figured out the benefits of following educators and educational hashtags, and once I discovered #edchat, I was on the road to the most powerful learning yet. Over the coming months, I began to develop a worldwide PLN. Learning from them and with them, I discovered and uncovered resources, tools, ideas, challenges... and inspiration. Interacting with educators around the world has pushed my thinking, clarified my ideas and motivated me to explore different kinds of learning for myself, my students and my school.

I’ve always been a teacher. Not the sort who does the same things year in, year out, though. I’ve always enjoyed change and challenges and been willing to experiment with new ideas. But I’ve changed more in the last couple of years as a teacher and a learner than in the preceding 25 years!


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