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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Different - The New Swear Word?

Lately, I have been giving a lot of thought to why I keep getting labeled so different as a teacher. Often the word is used to describe me in relation to other educators and just how "different" I am. It seldom appears to be a compliment but more a shunning tool, a way to divide teachers rather than unite us.

So I have had enough of defending myself from the label. Maybe I am diffent, maybe I am not. Either way, the next time I am called different, I will respond with a thank you. I am reclaiming the connotation of the word "different.". No more feeling the need to defend myself or ask questions, just acceptance of the word as a blessing. Who's with me?
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Letting Students Rule

Social studies was getting stagnant with packetwork meant to establish background knowledge for a Native American simulation. So work before the fun; going against my philosophy. The students kept asking amazing questions to which I replied that maybe later we would study that.

So I decided to do a circle discussion of social studies and the kids asked me if they could please research something of their choice about Native Americans. Sure. They even had ideas for how they would present the info: posters, models, skits, glogsters, research papers - boundless creativity.

So today my room was filled with noise, kids partnering up, books being shared, questions being thrown out and discarded, research being questioned. In short; it was beautiful.
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Monday, November 29, 2010

A Ghost Child says Hello

Image from here


I call them ghost children, those students who pop up in our classroom for weeks or months only to vanish again as quickly as they appeared. One student, let's call him Tom, showed up a couple of weeks into the school year ready to learn. Hailing from Chicago, he was so excited about having art, gym, and regular teachers rather than subs.  At his old school they didn't have such luxuries I quickly discovered.  I spoke to his mom several times on the phone, asking if there was anything we could do to help her find a home, a job, etc. Her main concern was always Tom and his education, particularly getting him out of trouble and into learning.

Every day, Tom greeted me with the biggest smile. He was ready to learn, no matter the obstacles and just couldn't believe all of the "amazing" things we were doing. Blogging, in particular, was something he loved to do, writing stories that made little sense and never quite fulfilling the task at hand. But he wanted to learn, to connect, to be a part of something.

And then, one day he was gone. We called home and got no answer. The weekend came and another couple of days passed by and his seat continued to be empty. I reached out, once getting a family member on the phone stating he would be back the next day.  Days passed and I got more people involved, trying to find my student, worrying where he had gone' and why his stuff hadn't gone with him.

More than 2 weeks has passed and this morning I opened up our kidblog. There was a new post waiting for my approval:

hay ever one this is Tom what up i am  likening my new school sorry miss ripp i had to transfer but i will talk to you and the class ever day tell Nathan Erick Hannah Lewis well ever body i miss them by


There he was, letting me know everything was alright, reaching out.  Maybe this blogging thing makes a difference after all.

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Why is Teaching a Lonely Job?

This past week as I have reflected upon personal conversations, emails and posts I have come across I had a sad realization; everywhere there are teachers who feel that no one wants them to succeed, that no one cares what they do, that no one stops to listen to them.  While I had hoped that these were merely regional perspectives and not something worldwide, I see now that teaching can be an incredibly lonely job.

Every teacher wants to be the best teacher they can be.  They start out with ideas, ideals, and aspirations, truly believing that every child can learn, achieve, be something incredible.  And yet, after perhaps not so gracious welcomes, or reserved hello's, teachers learn their first lesson about teaching: don't expect a red carpet welcome.  It is not that other teachers aren't welcoming, the profession as a whole just seems to be a bit skeptical, naturally reserved when anything new enters our midsts whether it be a new idea, change, or a new person.

And what a sad lesson that is.  We are there to reach out to all students, to make them feel welcome, and we spend precious class time building community with our students and then forget the community that needs to be re-formed every time someone new enters our schools.

I discussed this with my mother, who is a college professor.  She agreed with me that this is not a localized phenomenon but something that she has encountered on various levels as well.  Her take was that it often can be attributed to jealousy, busyness, competitiveness or a combination of any of those.  I hate to say she is right but I do think from personal experience that there is room for improvement in how we treat each other face to face.  I think of how in my online PLN whenever there is a success, people cheer and ask more questions.  Now I wonder whether this happens as much in real life as we would  like to think it does.  I certainly have days where I feel as if no one hardly cares and then there are days when I feel accepted and welcomed.

So I open it up for debate.  Are teachers friendly to each other or could we improve on this?  Why can teaching feel as if it is you against the world with few people cheering you on?  Do we create this situation or is a just a cutthroat profession where people fend for themselves, constantly wary of the new person?
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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Dear First Year Pernille

Image from here

Dear First Year Pernille,
You did it!  You got the job you set your heart on and now comes the part you have been looking forward to; teaching!  I know life has a lot in store for you this first year, already you are 4 months pregnant on the first day of school, and yet there are just a few things I want you to know before you start.

Stop stressing over your room!  Now is the time to be outside going for a walk, not laboring over the placement of posters, bulletin boards or welcome signs.  The kids will hardly notice it so give yourself a break.  Even if it feels like a hallway bulletin board competition at times - it's not.

Ask more questions.  Your teammates are some of the kindest and smartest people around.  Don't feel that you are a burden or that you should already know.  You are new, don't feel like you have to act like you already know the answer.

Trust your gut.  Feel that little tingle in your stomach?  Besides the baby, that's your intuition trying to tell you to listen to it.  So absolutely go ahead and use some of those same programs but then spend some time finding yourself as well. Make this your room with your teaching style, not a watered down version of someone else's.

Allow yourself to fail.  The students love it when we fail, why?  Because it shows we are humans.  The sooner you embrace your failures as another step in learning, the sooner you can get over it, and the more you will be a role model for the kids.

Don't beat yourself up.  Not everything will be perfect, even for an overachiever like yourself.  Some days will be amazing, others will not.  Don't worry there will be more good than bad but when those bad ones come around - give yourself a break.

Smile.  Love. Laugh.  Share.  Think.  Reflect.  Question.  Be kind.  Be brave.  Be you.  Everything is going to be just fine.  Oh, and do get on Twitter.
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Friday, November 26, 2010

Give the Gift of Now

Being a teacher means being there in the moment at all times. Yet often this simple truth is misplaced, pushed aside or simply forgotten. So even though we may be thinking about the next lesson, the paper's that need to be looked at, or whatever else may be happening in our world; being there is the most important thing.

So keep this in mind on Monday when those kids need you again. What is most important; what has happened already, what will happen, or what is happening right now? So listen to them, look at them and be in the now. The now is, after all, a wonderful gift. Give it to them.
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Thursday, November 25, 2010

One Deep Breath

Letting go; it's a beautiful thing.  And yes, one that is so hard to do for all humans.  Whether it is the unjustified comments at work, misunderstood jokes from your spouse, or misinterpreted glances;  they hurt, fester and boil, until they become so all consuming that all rational thought disappears.

In the last year, I have learned how to better let go.  I knew that I could not carry these thoughts, these all-consuming hurts that led to nowhere but self-doubt and loathing.  I didn't have a hallelujah moment, just realized that those people whose words I held on to so tightly as commissaries of my self-inflicted torture, had long since moved on from me.  And so now I choose to move on from them as well.

It has become sort of a life philosophy now, this letting go.  I have to remind myself, allow myself to fester, and then breathe.  With that breath I push it all out and refuse to let it pull me down farther.  With that breath I put up my wall, say no more, and then realize all of the beauty I have in my life.  With that breath I continue living a better life, vowing to not be one of those whose words hurt.

Now, if only I could stop carrying grudges.
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Monday, November 22, 2010

A Teaching Degree Does Not Make a Teacher

I wasn't taught how to be a teacher.  I took all of the teaching classes sure, and my diploma says that I have a teaching degree but being a teacher isn't something you can be taught in today's university.  All of the educational classes on reading, math,  and science provided me with background knowledge and a dabble in what it might be like as a teacher.  Lesson plans were written with fictitious students hand-selected by our imagination.  I liked to keep things harder so I always had a student with less attention or limited English proficiency, you know just to spice things up.  And amazingly every one one of those lesson plans was a hit with my professors.  My fictitious students ran home to their parents and heralded me as the best teacher ever.  And yet inside, I knew I was not ready to teach.

I walked the stage at graduation already with a long-term sub position I had gotten at my school.  I had been inducted into that job through on the job training and yet the entire time I just swam to stay afloat.  I was not a teacher then either.  I got my own classroom and on that first day I looked at those students and knew that I had not been prepared for this.  It wasn't that I didn't feel prepared; my education degree had not equipped me with the tools I needed to be a teacher.  So when we discuss education reform today and we throw around harsh lines about the quality of teachers, I think we need to refocus and aim our glances at the universities and colleges preparing the next generation of teachers.  How are they reforming to create capable teachers? 

No amount of papers, lesson plans, or discussion can truly prepare you to to the amazing and exhausting job of teaching so why is it we hide our future teachers in college classrooms rather than set them free in schools? To be a teacher, we need to be in the classrooms because that is where we learn how to be effective, reflective and creative.  This is where we face the true audience, the true measure of whether students have learned or not.  So disband teacher educations, or at the very least the last two years and replace it with on the job training with a certified experienced teacher.  Imagine the benefit for not just the wannabe teacher but also those students that get the luxury of having two adults in the room.  If there are bad teachers out there, or ineffective as the new term goes, then we must look at how those teachers were prepared.  Until our teaching education is changed, real reform will not be accomplished.
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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Are We Setting Students up for Failure?

This letter is part of a series of letters taking place 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 share our thoughts and struggles with creating the best learning environment for our students so that others may learn something as well.  To see the other letters, please visit us here or here.
Hi Jeremy,
I am so glad to hear that conferences went well. There we both were, sweating over every single detail and once again our fears got the better of us.  My parents loved it.  No one asked any questions as to what grade their child should be getting but instead asked pointed questions to their children about their learning.  As you may have realized, I have gotten hooked on student-led conferences as well in the process.  So maybe this shows us too that we have done our job well as well.  We have prepared our parents as much as we prepare our students.  We let them know from the beginning what type of environment we envision and then we follow our own guidelines.  No surprises means no anger.  I do wonder how you ended up doing your report cards in that you say some students were surprised?   Had you not shown them to them beforehand or discussed it with them?  I am liberally borrowing the idea from Joe Bower in setting grades with the kids, that way there won't be any surprises or confusion.  I agree, we continue this path and we adjust and continue, knowing that it is the right way to go.
I too am tech-obsessed.  I like to blame it on my parents who had one of the only original apple computers in town.  My students know that I have this obsession and they love it.  And yet, like you, I ponder whether my obsession is a healthy one and whether it is educationally relevant to the students?  So every time I choose to introduce a new tool for the students I have to know why.  Is it just for playing or is it an integral part of the learning process.  My students blog because we are learning to connect with an audience and to cater our writing to specific purposes.  Blogging also has the added excitement of responses from other people rather than just plain old me.  And yet, we write by hand every day as well.  One teacher told me that they thought students needed to learn how to write before they moved on to typing.  She therefore did not want students doing technology "stuff."  I was hurt and confused by her comment, knowing that she was directing it at me and the approach I have taken and I didn't get what she meant as I see the two as one in the same.  I can just as easily write a story by pencil as by typing.  To me that seems to be an excuse to keep students away from technology.
There have been times though where I have had to stop myself, though.  I know that my students get much more excited when they get to use technology but some times learning has to come from books and from discussion.  Not from a movie, or a voicethread, or some other computer related activity.  How do we set up our students for excitement about that type of learning?  Is there a way to combine the two?  Or will the technology always win because it is a gadget.  Are we, in truth, by being techy teachers, doing our students a disservice by setting them up for perpetual disappointment when they move on to teachers that do not embrace it as fully as we do?  Are we instead of helping shape 21st century students, shaping kids that will more quickly become disillusioned in a classroom because their teacher does not embrace technology?  Should teachers even be allowed to not incorporate technology into their lessons?
We will always be advocates for learning, that is the nature of our job, but what we must deliberate on every day is whether a tool will enhance learning or merely dress it up to become easier to digest?  I take an unpopular stance when I say that I feel interactive whiteboards are not all that they are hailed to be for learning purposes, although I agree that they catch children's' attention very well.   And that's it, isn't it?  Do we use technology to get the attention of our students or do we use it properly to teach them something?  
I fear I left you with more questions than answers.  Yet they are important ones that I struggle with on a daily basis.  And I wish I could say that I had typed this on my Ipad, however Santa has yet to decide whether I have been good enough to deserve one of those for Christmas or not.  I swear I have...





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Saturday, November 20, 2010

When Learning Fails - We Blame the Students

Being a 3rd year teacher in my district means writing a PDP or Professional Development Plan, in which we are to continually reflect upon our learning and our focus for our professional development.  I am therefore constantly reflecting with other students both face to face and through the internet on that most important question of all; why did I become a teacher? Well, I became a teacher because I believe in children and in their potential.

 Over the summer, I went through one of the most transformative periods of my life, developing a PLN and going through my chosen curriculum asking myself, "Why, why, why?" Why do I choose to teach the things I teach, besides the obvious state and district standards? Why is it that I force students to do book reports when I find them boring and unproductive? Why do I do packet work when it does not ensure learning? Why do I talk all the time, is it for control, for learning or because I am that in love with myself? Why do I fail 4th grade students? Why do I assign at least 40 minutes a homework a night? All of these were massive questions that were daunting and breathtakingly hard to be honest about, but I did it, I survived and for that I am a better teacher.

I realized over the summer that when teachers stop to question themselves is when the curriculum becomes stagnant. I know that we all get in our comfort zones and we feel that something works, so it becomes hard to give it up. But how many times have we stood in a situation where a particular cherished lesson or approach did not work and we end up blaming the students, rather than the teaching method? I had to realize that if something was not a success than I was to blame, not the make up of the students, or the particular day of the week, just me and my delivery. I therefore also knew that if I was going to rethink my teaching process than I had to fully believe and be passionate about what I teach. So this year my classroom is all about the students, or as I like to call it; it is the student-centered room. You will still find me teaching the students some of the time, but you are also more than likely going to find me walking around or sitting down and discussing curriculum. The students are learning to take control of the classroom, however, they are frightened at times, not quite sure what they are doing and yet I urge them to speak, to think, and to listen to one another. This system is not perfect, it is work in progress, but as my students grow, so do I.

So as I continue my conversations with fellow teachers, and we constantly re-evaluate ourselves, often being our own harshest critics, I am honored when others feel secure enough to tell me of the overwhelmedness or exhaustion.  I know that I have been in that same place but that this year I won't be. Sure there may be things that do not work out, and learning that does not quite happen as well as I would like it. However, when I glance around my room and see the confidence level of my students and also the excitement that is building in regard to our learning, I know that I am to something. I am back and I am staying.
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Friday, November 19, 2010

Saying Goodbye from a Student


This letter was written by one of my students to the husband of my friend and colleague who passed away Saturday.  If we ever wonder why we become teachers this is an example of the lives that we touch.  Cindy would have been so proud.

Dear Mr. Littel,
   
Hi, my name is Jordan.  I am a fourth grader at West
Middleton Elementary and live a few minutes away from you in Cherrywood.  I had your wife Cindy as my kindergarten teacher.   I heard about her passingL. 
Mrs. Littel was a wonderful teacher and a wonderful person.  
I remember the last day that she was at school and I went up to her and
I said, “Good bye Mrs. Littel,” and she gave me a big hug.  I will miss those hugs and I think you will too.  
I remember when we got to make ginger bread houses with her in class. I could not figure out how to put the icing on, so Mrs. Littel came over and she helped me.  
I have so many amazing memories of her and I will never forget her.  She will always be in my heart.

           Sincerely,

Jordan

P.S. That ginger bread house tasted AMAZING! J   


                      First day of Kindergarten                                           First day of 4th Grade
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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Declutter I say! Or Why Motivational Posters Demotivate

Life is full of choices, so choose carefully! How can anyone love you if you do not love yourself? And my favorite: failure is never an option! All sayings found on various motivational posters sold to teachers that mean well and boy, do they sell. Anyone who has ever been in a teacher store those last couple of weeks before school start will see the poster wheels spinning frantically as the just right poster is sought. Ok, I admit I, I was one of those teachers, however, I thought I was clever and that I had it all figured out. You see, I had edited my pre-packaged collection and therefore only had select few displayed. Thus, my students knew that these were the sayings they had to focus on. I remember one was a cute little frog hanging on to a tree branch and something about sticking with it. Oh, day in and day out that little frog inspired my students to never give up! Right? Well, not exactly. My students didn't care. I am sure they thought they were cute and one or two of them used them for inspiration for their own doodles in their journals but did it ignite their passion for learning? Hardly, in fact, I would like to argue quite the opposite. You see, my students were overloaded with messages. Walk into almost any elementary classroom and you will be bombarded with motivational posters, hand-made posters, student work, rules, classroom jobs and anything else that deserves a special place on the wall. And we don't just tack it to the all, we put up back posters and fancy boarders o that it gets really colorful and pops! In fact, bare walls are taunted and laughed at, seen as someone being unprepared or dare I say dispassionate about their room, their job, their kids!

And so the pressure on new teachers in particular is immense. You may be new but your room should still look inviting, educationally functional and also be a representation of you as a teacher. That last week before my first week of school ever, I was waking up in cold sweat wondering whether the kids would get "me" in the room? And then school happened and I realized little by little that even though I had labored intensely over my handmade sign with the great Shakespeare quote "Do Not be Afraid of Greatness" my students had never read it or noticed it really. How do I know? My principal asked them about it when I was observed the first time. But surely they had noticed all of the signs? Not so much, even if I had pored over each placement of every poster so much that my walls had holes in them from my tearing off the gorilla tape (note to self: don't ever use gorilla tape again.) I had created rules - keep them simple but firm, and a little flexible. Classroom jobs - instill responsibility but make the chart so fun that the kids cannot wait to see what job they will do. And maps - I had maps all over my room. Why maps? Well, I really like maps and they filled all that dreaded empty wall space. I would have continued to cover and decorate had it not been for a pesky thing called the firecode. It stopped me at 20%.

So what changed? One day I realized that it wasn't my room that represented me, but myself that represented me. In fact, I got sick of re-taping posters that kept falling down, or moving them when I actually needed the space for learning and so little by little down they came. The ultimate clean up came when I had to move rooms this year. I sorted, evaluated and donated. Now I chuckle when I see my "old" posters hanging somewhere else. Don't they realize why I got rid of them? I also thought about my students more and how they reacted to the environment I created. Too much of it was about me, and how I wanted the room to be. They didn't feel welcome or that the space was theirs, but merely as guests passing through borrowing the space. Another consideration was that I have students that get over-stimulated quite easily. Being a clutter freak myself I start to get clammy when I stay in these rooms too long so imagine if you are a student trying to focus on whatever is going on on the whiteboard. Where do you look? To the poster telling you to keep focusing or on to the actual board? So is my room bare walls? Nah, but what is up there is important. In fact, the kids have noticed what is posted. Quotes form the Little Prince, from the "I Have a Dream" Speech, and student introductions in Wordles. We have some literary elements as reminders and even a couple of pictures. The students know how obsessed I am with zombies so they draw me pictures of flesh eaters. No rules, no motivational posters, just us. Our space, our room. And most importantly, room to grow into a community. Into making the space our own. They own the room as much as I do and that is more important that sticking to it or never giving up!


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Sunday, November 14, 2010

News on a Sunday Morning

The phone call startles me; why would the school secretary be calling me during breakfast on a Sunday morning? Usually it would mean an emergency at school but the skies are clear and the weather has been fine. And then it dawns on me; this will not be good news. I answer and sure enough the worst has happened; a dear colleague has lost her battle to cancer, happened last night and there are no other details at the moment. I choke back tears and call the next person on our phone tree hating the fact that I have to startle them with the news as well during their coffee. And then I start to think of the severity of the loss.

You see, Cindy was one of those teachers that the kids absolutely adored. They all wanted her as their kindergarten teacher, she was the one that kids would talk you about years later as one of their favorites. She had a gift for making those very overwhelming first days of school for a scared little 5 year old into the most magical journey they would ever embark on. Her diagnosis last December therefore came as a great shock to all of us, especially those who had the privilege of calling her a very close friend.

Cindy was a uniter, a calmer, a quiet leader that would make you feel listened to and then would let you speak. We often talk about teacher leaders and she was one of those rare ones that almost everyone could agree to listen to. She didn't raise her voice but that did not mean she was not passionate; she was. Passion to her though did not mean shouting or hammering her point home but rather starting a dialogue and getting everyone involved. I often wish I could be more like Cindy.

And so tomorrow we return to school, make sure all of the staff knows and our magnificent guidance counselor will take care of the kids. The parents will be told as well and once more our community must come together to say goodbye, to rally around the living and make sure we are there for them as well. And as we continue to live, to carry Cindy in our hearts, we must strive to be more like her. A uniter in this divisive time, a listener, a thoughtful leader and most of all someone who passionately lived her life, letting others know what they meant to her. We carry our memories, our thoughts, and we continue on as teachers because that is what we do. We continue to care, to teach, to lead, but we don't ever forget. I don't want to ever forget.
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Saturday, November 13, 2010

They Call Me...

They call me Mrs. Ripp and I look around for my mother-in-law, oh wait, that's me now

They call me mom and I smile a little and then laugh with them when they apologize

They call me "hey you" when they are in a hurry

Or "dude..." when they are steaming from their recess kickball game

They call me a force, whether good or bad, but always believing

They call me honest, to your face and very, very direct

They call me early-riser because I love coming to my classroom

They call me a believer because that is what I do

They call me passionate

They call me a difference maker

They call me a changer

Because I am a teacher
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Sneaking into Inference

Two weeks ago we started the dreaded WKCE (Our standardized testing) and I could tell that kids were stressed over whether or not they would do well on these horrid tests. It is not that I am totally against tests, I am not, but these ones do nothing for my instruction. They are so secretive, that we must sign confidentiality agreements, and lock them up after each session, just in case someone uninvited wanted to sneak a peek at them. What's worse is that we do not get the results until March, so how are they supposed to inform my instruction? I am at the very least staying hopeful since we have been promised that this type of test will be phased out within the next years, to be replaced by something else.

Either way, here were my poor students getting more frazzled as the testing week grew closer so I suggested we sing a song to lighten the mood a bit. I wish this were my idea but it is really inspired by this post from Greta Sandler and this one by Joan Young. I love singing, in fact, I sing all of the time. I sing instructions to my students, I ask for their attention through singing, and at home I am unstoppable show-tune belter. I majored in music in my native Denmark, and always thought I was going to be a performer. (I guess that sort of came true as we do nothing short of perform every day in front of our students). But I digress. I asked my students which song they would like to sing? Crickets.... Then I asked them which song did they know? Row, Row, Row your boat was one option and Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star was another. Not to be discouraged, we sang a hearty rendition of Row, Row, Row Your Boat, or rather I sang my little heart out while the students mumbled under their breath.

That day, I told my husband my horror of how few songs they knew. You see, in Denmark, you sing all of the time in schools. We sing at every assembly, we sing with our teachers; music is everywhere so by the time you graduate you have quite the repertoire of well-known and beloved songs that the rest of the Danish population also knows and will gladly sing with you at a festive gathering. Oh, my stoic American husband absolutely died when he realized how much my family sings. So what's a teacher to do?

I have long been a believer in exposing students to poetry that is not deemed "kid poetry" so I took the same approach to songs. So Tuesday's are now Music/Poetry days in my room. We take a classic song - our first one was "Imagine" by John Lennon, the students predict what the theme is based on the title and then we listen to it. Students are asked to write down anything they think of while they listen. Afterwards we read the lyrics and it is now up to the students to figure out what the song is really about. So ta da; we are now teaching inference and they don't even know it. The best part is; the kids then want to sing the song, and then sing it some more. In fact, "Imagine" has become our go-to song whenever we need a break. The parents have noticed their kids coming home singing some of the classics. Students are even requesting to sing/learn certain songs now and I find myself constantly searching for songs that they may like or have a great message. "Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2" was a favorite hit and the kids could not believe that I let them listen to the song, why not I say, it made them think after all.

So if you happen to be around my room, don't be surprised if you hear kids belting out a tune. For this coming week, it will be one of my favorites again, "New York, New York" because after all "if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere." So why not let them sing, let them find their inner voice, who knows who you will inspire?
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Friday, November 12, 2010

My Edublog Nominations


What an amazing last couple of months it has been as my life has been transformed by blogs.  These are just some of my many favorites as requested by EduBlogs.

Best individual blog  What Ed Said by Edna Sackson
Best individual tweeter Shelly Terrell
Best group blog  Connected Principals
Best resource sharing blog  Larry Ferlazzo
Most influential blog post  Come Join the Abolish Grading Movement by Joe Bower
Best teacher blog Spencer's Scratch Pad by John T. Spencer
Best librarian / library blog Van Meter Library Voice by Shannon Miller
Best School Administrator blog The Principal of Change by George Couros
Best educational tech support blog  Free Technology for Teachers
Best educational wiki  #EdChat
Best educational podcast Anything by Alfie Kohn
Best educational use of a social networking  Edutopia
Best use of a PLN #edchat
Lifetime achievement Larry Ferlazzo
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Let Them Speak - Why Student Led Conferences are the Right Choice

I admit it; yesterday morning even I thought I was crazy.  I was getting ready to unleash my students in their first student led conferences and with no experience to fall back upon, those 24 super nervous students were freaking me out.  And then something magical happened; it worked!  The students took their parents through an eloquent journey of their learning, and more importantly, flaunted their knowledge while setting new goals for themselves.  I am sold.

This beauty of the student-led conference was not something invented by me; in fact, many people have blazed the trail on this and I have even heard of kids as young as 1st grade leading their own conference.  Therefore when I decided this year that the classroom was no longer all about me, I was intrigued by the idea of also "allowing" students to run their own conferences.  Every year, I am exhausted and exhilarated after these.  Exhilarated, because it is a thing of beauty to discuss success, progress and goals with parents - exhausted because I talked and talked for 20 minutes a kid two or three nights in a row. Although students have always been required to be at their conference with me (why discuss them if they are not there to hear it) they were never really engaged.  Conferences for them were a way for me to tell their parents how they were doing, and as such, a passive act for them, something they were required to listen to but not be full participants in.  This year,  I knew it had to be different.

Always a believer in preparation, I decided that much as I prepare for conferences so must my students.  We therefore discussed the purpose of them until everyone understood that conferences were there to show off their learning, not as a form of punishment or "telling" on them to their parents.  Then came the real work; what would they discuss?  I knew that these kids had never led a conference before and so they needed an agenda.   Students therefore received a 2-sided agenda from me with what I expected them to discuss. (Another valuable life skills happens to be how to lead a successful meeting so this proved practice in that as well).  They were given time in class to take notes for their conference if they felt they needed that to guide them; some did but not all, and they were able to ask any clarifying questions of the agenda and curriculum we had covered.  Students were also asked to self-assess both their writing and grade themselves.  I have to give them letter grades on their report card, even if I would prefer not to, and so they were asked to translate their performances and knowledge into grades.  It was eye-opening to see how harsh they could be when judging themselves.  Once students felt that they had everything prepared, we met to go over their papers.  They were given a folder in which they could place anything they wanted to show at the conference, including their notes.  And then we waited...

Our final question session was yesterday right before the first conference was to be held.  Students all placed their conference folders in a safe spot and took a deep breath.  I showed no nerves, even though inside I was second-guessing this decision with every teacher-bone in my body.  It wasn't that I thought students couldn't do it, but more that I wondered whether parents would get it.  Would they see that this wasn't just a way for me to "get out of" conferences, but rather a much better way for the same information to be delivered?  I am glad I was proven so wrong.

While some students did better than others, 1 never showed up, and 3 parents forgot to bring their kids, it was still incredible to hear and see the kids share their learning.  Parents were given a recommended question sheet but most did not need it.  They knew which questions to ask their children and I became what I should be; an accessory to the conversation.  I jumped in when clarification was needed or if a child judged themselves too harshly.  Otherwise I helped guide a little and then just listened and what I learned was so valuable.  I got a better grip on how secure some of my students were than I could have ever gotten from just observing them in the classroom or let alone given them a worksheet.  I also got to see another side of my students as they spoke to their parents, in essence representing themselves as members of my class to the outside world.  I know what I have to repeat in class and what students get.  I know what has made an impression on them and what I should skip next year.  But the best part of all of this was the pride these kids took.  And not just in their work, or their grades, but in doing the conference themselves.  The parents noticed too and I therefore must declare these my most successful conferences to date. I am thankful for the advice given to me regarding student-led conferences and I hope this will inspire others to try it as well.  If you let your students lead; you will be amazed.  I know I was, and for that I am thankful (and proud!).

I have all of the forms I use available as a packet here
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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Hey Mrs. Ripp...

Dear Fabulous 4th graders,
When I look at you in the morning, I see the future. Bright eyes, some anyway, bushy-tailed, again some not all, but eager. Kids that are genuinely excited to at least be at school even if math for an hour and 15 minutes isn't at the top of their list for fun things to do right away in the morning. Yet there you are, letting me in and wanting me to know about you and your dreams. And you let me in; it is amazing what you share: "Hey Mrs. Ripp, I stayed up until 1 AM last night! Mrs. Ripp, guess what? What? I threw up after eating too much candy last night, it was orange. Mrs. Ripp, my parakeet died last night." And every day I am grateful for what you share, for the smiles you give, for the voices you raise whenever you have the courage to.

And that's it for me. The draw of being a teacher. The trust you give me every day, the genuine emotions that are exhibited whether good or bad; there is no curtain. I don't ever take it for granted, it is a gift, something to be in awe of and cherish. The magic of teaching for me comes when that moment occurs that not only do you "get" something, but you "get" me, us, the classroom, and you trust it. Trust isn't easy to give when you are a 4th grader already hardened and partially jaded to the world from bad playground experiences and horrid classroom memories. Trust is something we hope to earn as teachers, never something to be taken for granted or forced. trust comes through sharing with the students, opening yourself up and letting those kids into your life a little bit. Then it's my turn to say, "Hey kids, guess what? What? I am sorry I was out yesterday but I was so sick. Did you throw up? Yeah maybe. Was it orange...?"
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Saturday, November 6, 2010

We Can't Look Back

This letter is part of a series 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.  To see the first and second letter, visit us here

Hi Jeremy,
Ah yes, the realities of fall - catchty title and very apropos.  It is amazing what we thought we could accomplish this summer as we prepared for fictitious classrooms that, of course, had some needs, some diversity, but most of all lots of eager minds.  Don’t get me wrong, I had read about most of my students, labored over the notes from previous years and planned my approach to these varied learning styles.  And then school started and learning began and the train was set in motion.
I remember feeling like things ended before.  An assignment was given, preferably with a worksheet tied into it to show their learning and then when that had been graded, that portion of the year was done.  Now, it continues, never ending as we refine our approach, chastise ourselves for missed opportunities of true wisdom and push ourselves to do more, be more, teach more.  The learning you see does not stop when you get rid of grades.  An assignment is never quite finished.  I can never assume that something has been mastered until they have shown me through later recollection or work that it really has been settled into their brain.  So what’s a girl to do?  Well, like you, I have my dirty secret stash of spreadsheets.  I check off my goal lists for science, social studies, writing, and math and I ponder and evaluate.  Sometimes I wonder whether my spreadsheets are up to the task and some days I wonder whether I know what I am really doing.  On those days I give myself a break and think of all the amazing opportunities my students are having.
As teacher, we love to beat ourselves up.  And why not?  We are after all the changers of the world, the people who are responsible for creating America’s future.  So when we change systems, approaches, philosophies, we are meddling with real kids, not imagined ones, and so the outcome is real.  That should not stop us though but instead propel us forward, cradling the immense responsibility as the gift it truly is.  I know that this is the right path forward.  I have 24 pretty well-adjusted students in my room that know that even if there is no grade tied to their work, it is serious business.  They are their own worst critics, I have come to find out, but they are also the best suited to take control of their learning, and that is what we are letting them do.  We are giving them responsibility.  We are allowing them to be part of the process, the knowledge acquiring and giving them a voice in the learning process.  My students know exactly what the goal of any lesson is because they have to.  Otherwise they will not know whether they have mastered that goal.  Never before have I had students that are so aware of what they are supposed to learn, and that is a great thing.  So those checklists are ever changing as I realize that what I thought was a goal is something else entirely.  I am forced to really think about why I teach something and how I can best teach and when that happens the students will always benefit.  So don’t be ashamed of your checklists, but use them for the right purpose; to shape your teaching and to help you evaluate.  Just because we do not grade does not mean we cannot assess.
Doesn’t it sound good?  It is, but then reality smacks me in the face again.  Conferences start on Thursday and what will I share with the parents?  Or rather what will my students share because I have also decided to let it be student-led conferences rather than me led.  This way students have to know what we are learning, once again they are asked to take part in what goes on in the classroom and not just show up.  Of course, some kids are freaked out but others are deliberating their approach, figuring out how to showcase their learning, getting ready for any questions.  I have provided them with conference sheets and self-assessments (And why by the way did you not share your student self-assessments with the world?).  I tell them that I will be right there with them, ready to jump in, to support, which should always be our role.  We cannot be the sole keepers of the knowledge, we have to be the bridge instead and by continuously creating opportunities for these kids we are allowing this to happen.  
So Jeremy, we are not careless, we are dreamers.  And to dream you must dare.  We believe in the power of our students so now we must believe in ourselves as professionals.  Our lives might seem easier at first if we go back to the old ways of worksheets and grades.  Slap a sticker on it and done.  But our entire philosophy of education has been irreversibly changed, and so our core beliefs will forever ring an alarm if we go back.  This is our maiden voyage and every year will be easier.  Will everything be figured out this year?  Probably not but that is the magic of teaching.  We evolve along with our students, always trying to give them the best possible educational experience.  No grades to me means no more crushing dreams.  I have not had the power to tell a child that if they do not finish this work then they will fail.  And that is a power I do not ever want to have again, do you?

Best,

Pernille
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Thursday, November 4, 2010

If I Were a Teacher - Reflections from Students

Ah from the mouths of students.  Every week I challenge my students to blog asking them various questions.  This week I thought why not ask them how they would run their classroom?  What do they love when we do and what would they change.  Well the answers are in and they are very revealing (and not so surprising after all).


  • No Homework.  The consummate complaint is that teachers give too much of it, that it is too hard, or even worse that it is boring and/or pointless.  We know this probably from our own school experience, so why is it most of us ( and I used to be one) feel the absolute requirement to prescribe homework?  Students already give you at least 6 some hours of their day, how about we give them a break and let them enjoy life a bit?
  • Rewards, candies, and parties.  Yes, students want to be rewarded and they do not know why.  No students wrote how they would "earn" said rewards but many pointed out that parties were the best thing about school.  Makes me sad to think that with all of the amazing learning going on, the parties we throw are the ones that kids remember.  So how do we change that?
  • More spelling tests.  Ok, that one was a surprise.  I have a couple of girls that love spelling and so for them a perfect classroom means more spelling tests.  Preferably on Thursdays when their minds are still fresh.  I am still thinking about that one.
  • More creativity.  Students don't want to show us their progress through another worksheet (well, some do but many don't).  Students want to create.  So my students are asking for more creative projects.  I cannot wait for them to see the Native American Battle simulation I am working on right now.
  • Rules.  Not the rules you set up, but rules they come up with.  This year I do not have rules posted on the walls but we discuss them a lot.  Especially trust and just how important it is in our classroom.  It shows again that students crave structure with some freewill embedded and gives me a good reminder that we need to have another class meeting to discuss norms.
And then the compliment.  Almost all of my students had to share just how amazing I am as their teacher and while I certainly appreciate the compliment I also wonder about it.  The challenge did not say anything about me or rating my performance but rather what they would do themselves if they were a teacher.   When are students taught that they must tell you that you are their favorite teacher or that you rock?  I always tell my students that they do not have give me compliments unless they mean them but whenever I mention teachers, there it is, "well, you are my favorite one." Oh if it really were so, I will settle with being one they like and not let the rest go to my head.

If you would like to see the blogging challenge (blogging challenge 3) and their thoughts on tests (blogging challenge 2) as well go to our class blog.  While you are there, leave us a comment.  They love to hear from others and we mark you on our map as well.
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Monday, November 1, 2010

They are Someone's Child - Tania's Aha Moment

This last aha moment is shared to me by the prolific can-doer Tania Ash, whose newly minted blog I have a feeling will be a must read and who is also a must follow on Twitter at @tcash. Tania was a person who reached out early to me in my Twitter experience because that is just how she works. Always looking to welcome new teachers into the experience, always there to support, and as one of the founders of the wonderful #elemchat held on Thursday nights she has been a fantastic resource in my PLN. As a 5th grade teacher in Morocco, she is never afraid to connect with others both herself and with her students. This aha moment speaks deeply to me as I have gone through this same transformation. Thank you Tania for sharing it with the rest of us and also for rounding out our aha moment guest series with such a heartfelt piece.

When I was asked to write about my a-ha moment, I must admit that I had mixed feelings. Coming from an educator I respect and admire so much, a prolific writer whose blog represents not only a wealth of ideas, but also thought-provoking, deep reflection; after the initial excitement, my first fear was that of falling short. My second, was to find the perfect a-ha moment among myriad possibilities.

There have been so many a-ha moments along the way. How to choose a single one? My life, my choices, haven’t exactly followed the most typical itinerary.

There could be the moment when, after dropping out of school in grade 13 and following a boy to another continent, I decided I wanted to work in an elementary school and became an assistant in a 2nd grade classroom.

Or the moment, 3 years later, when I decided that I wanted to go back to school and become a teacher. It could be any number of moments with some of the inspiring educators I had the honour to work with, from the 2nd grade teacher who opened the door to the world of teaching (and continues, to this day, to be both my mentor and best friend), to the 3rd and 5th grade teachers who opened up their classrooms, filing cabinets and plan books when they kindly agreed to act as my cooperating teachers during my student teaching... those were unforgettable moments that shaped the teacher I was to become.

It could be the moment when, after serving as the technology coordinator in my school, I realized that I longed for my own class where I could be a pedagogue and plan learning experiences from start to finish, and not just content myself with being the “tech” of someone else’ project.

That said, one of the moments that most profoundly impacted my teaching came from the most unexpected sources. Well, it was unexpected to me at least. It wasn’t in any textbook in the teacher-training program, it wasn’t in any student-teacher internship programs, nor part of any of the countless workshops and conferences I’ve attended over the years. It was a transformation that started small, and then began to grow. It isn’t a particular moment per se, but a collection of moments that started the day my son was born. The day I became a parent and got my first glimpse at the other side of the fence was the day I began to be a better teacher.

At first, it was just the realization of how powerful parenthood is...
As an educator, I’d always loved and valued children, but as a mother, I found out what that really meant. For the first year after my son was born, I found I couldn’t watch any news or read any newspapers. Every time there was a story about a suffering child, it touched me as if those children, in faraway lands, were *mine*. Today, when I meet my 5th grade students and their families in the first days of the school year, I can immediately visualize those nights when those parents tiptoed into their child’s bedroom at night, just to make sure s/he was still breathing, or imagine the trepidation they felt the first time they left their treasure in someone else’ care. Today, when I greet a new student at the door, it is the whole family that I welcome, doing my best to reassure them that I will handle their delicate treasure with the utmost care.

After a while, the a-ha feeling grew...
I began to look more closely, and more appreciatively, at the small things in life. Having worked with mostly upper elementary aged students, I used to think that teaching early childhood just wasn’t for me. I know - that’s quite the confession coming from a teacher. Shame! I found I had trouble relating with very young students, that our cadences were, well, off-sync. Kindergarten? I didn’t think I had the patience for the very basic, well, basics. But as I watched my son grow from an infant to a toddler, and the determination with which he learned to crawl, then walk, the elation I saw in his face with each new discovery, I learned just how *big* those small steps are. They say that quality preschool programs are one of the best indicators of future success. Today, as both an educator and a parent, I strongly support that claim - and would gladly teach Kindergarten any day if offered the opportunity.

And then it grew some more...
Another confession that I really must share is this - as a teacher, I used to give plenty of homework. I used to make students record their reading in a reading log, do problem after problem, practice basic facts, research...I even occasionally gave homework on the weekend...academia in overdrive! Today, as a parent, I realize just how precious those weekend minutes for family time really are. I see, now, that fighting with my child to get his reading homework done isn’t going to create a lifelong reader. It is only going to create frustration, anxiety and tension and may indeed backfire. As a teacher, I now strive to be more reflective, more selective in the homework I assign...much less than before... and I never, never assign homework on the weekend.

Every day, another a-ha connection
Whereas I have always felt a little anxious during parent conferences as a teacher, I now have a better sense for what a parent feels at that same moment. As a parent, I look at my son’s teacher across the conference table and see someone who is judging him - whether favourably or not - evaluating his development in the cognitive, physical, and social domains. Does she see the guilt I carry around about all the things I *should* be doing as a parent to help my child grow? Those things that somehow, despite best intentions, get set aside on those days when life gets in the way? This person is helping to shape my child’s future. Does she know everything she needs to know about him? Does she know how anxious he gets when he believes that he may have lost her approval? Today, as before, I start out parent conferences by listening. I listen to parents tell me about their child, and how they perceive their child’s feelings about school. Is Johnny happy to come to school? What kinds of topics does he seem to enjoy most? What works at home? Today, as before, I start out by listening, but it seems like today, when I listen, I can really hear what parents are telling me. As a teacher, I don’t beat around the bush - I am honest with parents about their child’s progress, and always include goals and strategies parents can try at home to help their child grow. I do my best to set the tone right from the start of the school year, to clarify that lines of communication are open. I explain to them that we are partners in the quest to help guide their child towards success, and that, whereas I may not have all the answers, I, we, can work towards effective solutions together.

I have the incredible fortune of having my child attend the school where I work, a school which is, in my opinion, one of the best schools out there. Located on a beautiful green campus, it has intangible qualities that make it a very special place where children are happy and want to learn. It is also a place where, every day, I learn a little something about being a parent, and I learn lots about being a teacher. Being a parent has helped - is helping me - become a better teacher. I switch hats numerous times during the day, look at the other side of the coin, or across the fence. Whatever the metaphor, whenever I move between my role as a parent and my role as a teacher, I make another connection, I have another little a-ha moment.
 

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