Thursday, March 31, 2011

Choose Your Message

With the waves of uncertainty surrounding us, I remain steadfast in my commitment to my students. I remain steadfast in my commitment to my family, to myself, and to my dream of positivity. To say that life is stressful would be an understatement. Personal life-changing issues abound, as well as professional ones, yet I remain steadfast in my dedication.

We choose what we portray. We choose the message that we bring. And although life may be very hard, we choose how we deal with it. This time has tested me to the core, and yet I choose to smile. I choose to exhibit hope and positivity, fore I choose to stay above water and not get pulled down. So ask yourself, what do you choose? What do you bring in with you when you show up at work or at home? What is it people will leave your conversations feeling like?

As teachers we affect more than just our students. We affect all the staff in our schools, and we affect how the children entrusted to us, go home and in turn affect their families. We have an immense opportunity and indeed responsibility to have a positive effect on all the paths we cross. So yes, I get how tough it is right now, and no, I am not a saint. I have bad days, I have horrible days, but I cannot focus on those. I have to remember why I am here in the first place; to make a difference, and not a bad one.

We speak of peer pressure as if it is a always a bad thing. I exert my peer pressure but use my powers for good rather than evil. I choose to continue to focus on a message of positivity, of challenging oneself to not be the pebble, and hope that I can influence others to do the same. Perhaps it will be cool again to smile? Perhaps laughing will become the new "it" thing to do. Who knows? I choose to remain dedicated.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Our Vision Has Not Changed

6 months ago we created this video for our school's vision.  Today, while education is in turmoil, we stand behind this vision.


Being a Good Teacher Means

It is no longer a secret that our nation is obsessed with the supposed battle between "good" and "bad" teachers.  Apparently, according to many, America has an epidemic of bad teachers on their hands and it is only through dismantling of the unions that these bad teachers can be disposed of.  So for the sake of research and help, I asked colleagues to finish this sentence "Being a good teacher means..."  So America, here to help you with the definition of a good teacher, as well as how to evealuate them, see my favorite answers below:

Being a good teachers means...
  • Being willing to reflect, change, and improve-looking for the best opportunities for student learning - @MrMacnology
  • Laughter, lots of laughter. Laughing with your students - @HeidiSiwak
  • Recognizing you are a learner, as well as a teacher and getting your students to understand that learning is for life -@henriettaMI
  • Listening more than you talk ... Often kids have a better answer and you just have to hear it - @Polygirl68
  • Being open 2 our students drive their own learning in the classroom - @MollyBMom
  • Always feeling the lesson could've gone just a wee bit better - @Attipscast
  • Means u never stop learning and u always work to improve - @KTVee
  • Being a learner. being humble. being empathetic. being flexible. being knowledgeable. being driven. @RussGoerend
  • Always doing what's right by the kids @Becky7274
So there you have it; what makes a teacher good.  In my words; passion, change, dedication, transparency, authenticity, knowing when to be quiet, and knowing when to fight.  No one said test scores, rigidity, or grades, so why do they seem to be the driving force behind what determines someones worth?

What is missing?


Saturday, March 26, 2011

So I Work on the Weekends

Today is Saturday, the second to last day of my spring break, the day my daughter smiles the biggest, runs the most, and my husband beckons for me to read, relax, live a little.  Instead I go to work.  Mind you I don't have to, no one told me in my contract that I had hours to fulfill.  No one told me that I better get in there to check on everything, to plan, to prep, to clean.  And yet in I go, blissfully so.  So why do I work on the weekend?

I work on the weekend because there is not enough time in the week.  Of course, there would be plenty of time left over if all I did was teach out of the book and not do any assignments, so perhaps I just have myself to blame.  Perhaps when I decide to plan projects, extensions, and create opportunities for all of my kids to learn, I need more time.  Perhaps when I decide that teaching straight from the book just is not going to cut it, then I need more time.  I am not mad, or angry at the time I spend fore I know that I will get results back from the time invested.  So I work on the weekends because my students deserve it.

I work on the weekends because it is quiet.  I don't turn on the music, the lights and I shut the door and let my thoughts roam.  I practice, I reflect, and I tinker with what I am going to teach.  I do this uninterrupted by students, coworkers, phone calls, needs for hugs, requests for lunch, mini meetings, or friendship counseling.   I relish the quiet as my thoughts paint pictures of the results I want to have in the coming week.

I work on the weekends because it makes me a better teacher.  By coming in, spending the time, and thinking once again about what I intend to do, I grow.  I question my intent, I question my goals, and I always, always, think about the students.  How do they want to learn about this?  How can I be quiet while my students explore?  How can this become memorable and not just another daily lesson?  So I work on the weekend not by force, but by choice, because I choose to attain greatness as a teacher so that my students can attain greatness as well.  I work on the weekends because my students deserve whatever extra time I can put in, they deserve that extra attention, they deserve the best.  So I work on the weekends.


Friday, March 25, 2011

Give Me Time

I do not teach in a poor school, nor do I teach in an affluent one. I teach in your middle of America school, where we have our constraints but do not have to spend our entire paycheck buying classroom supplies. I am lucky in some respects, yet sheltered in others, so I wonder whether I can truly form an opinion on movies like "Waiting for Superman.". Can I judge what this movie portrays when I have not taught in a fail factory or been labeled a bad teacher?

What I can respond to though are statements such as the one at the end of the movie, "Our system is broken...and it feels impossible to fix.". Statements such as this does nothing to fix the problem but perpetuates the pervasiveness of just how horrible the American school system is. This angers me. The entire American school system is not horrible, there are entities of it that are, and yes, those entities need to be fixed but is throwing out the entire system really the way to do it?

The preferred method of fixing anything in education seems to be to throw it all out and start over. You see it in school districts all over; desperate to fix falling scores or inadequate growth, money becomes the solution. Buy a new program! Buy a new test! More training! More supervision! More, more, more! It appears we are choking ourselves to mediocrity and then wondering who is to blame for the lack of oxygen?

So my plea is simple; enough with the reform! We have been reformed to death these last many years. Stop changing the strategies, stop changing the methods on how to test us and just let us teach. Let me teach. Give me time to reach a deeper level with my students. Give me time to let them create and explore. Give me time to differentiate for all of my students and not just the easy ones. Give me time to speak, to listen and to develop. Some may say that time is all teachers ever have been given. Not true; our time to learn with our students has been taken away minute by minute by new curriculum implementation, standards, tests and more guidelines. So before you tell me to change again, give me time to learn how to teach this way. Then I can become a better teacher and prove to you that our system is not impossible to fix, just give me time to teach.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

I Go to Work

I go to work every day believing that today will be the best of all days.

I go to work every day knowing that my students will have success.

I go to work ready to work, to give, to dream, to hope.

I go to work every day knowing that the responsibility lies with me for these students.

I go to work every day knowing that this is what I am meant to do.

I go to work every day ready to face the challenges.

I go to work every day renewed in my belief as an educator.

I go to work every day ready to change the world.

I go to work every day because it is not just work, it is a life.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

It's a Half Percent

"I don't mean to alarm you but it appears that your baby has an elevated risk for Downs..."  The road blurred in front of me as the words took shape in my stomach.  "The test results are back and normal is 1 in 10,000, yours is 1 in  214."  It's a half percent, it's a half percent, it's a half percent ran through my mind like a mantra, willing my hands to stay on the wheel and my eyes to stay on the road.  "The doctor will call you in a couple of days when he reviews the test results."  And with that my whole world changed.

The first frantic phone call was to my mother, who was waiting for the airport bus.  I could barely choke out the words.  Shock, and then mommy reflexes sparing into action as she repeated "It's a half percent."  Finally got through to my husband, shock, then husband reflexes, and then anger.  Where was the doctor, why was a nurse calling with this information, what did this all mean? Soon the Internet became our go-to place; forums, statistics, percentages all became mandatory reading for this unwanted and unknown territory. Life dreams were revisited, rechecked, redreamed.

There were decisions to make, tests to have or not, what would a life look like with a child with Downs?  Could we provide the support and medical care that this child could possibly need?  Where had the bubble of the first 16 weeks of perfect pregnancy gone?  Why us?  Why me?  What had I done wrong?  2 days later, after many calls wondering whether the doctor had reviewed my tests, the call came.  He was angry.  Why had they pushed this extra test on me anyway?  The first test had been normal, so why do a second one?  I could barely hear his words, all I kept hearing was "It's a half percent, it's a half percent..."

So we went ahead and had the evasive sample test done because we knew that no matter what this child possibly had, we wanted to be prepared for it.  The worry consumed me for days as I begged my body to not lose this child, that all I wanted was answers, whatever they would be.  That this child would be loved, no matter the cost, so please, please just stay with me.

I was home alone, another phone call.  The results were in, "Your little girl is fine, no need to worry."  My heart stopped beating for just a second.  "Did you say fine?  Did you say little girl?"  Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Another visit with the doctor and again that same anger; why would they test you?  Why did they want one more?  I felt embarrassed to tell him that I had jumped at the chance when it had been presented to me, after all as a first time pregnant person, I thought the more tests, the better.  After all, don't we want to rule everything out?  He looked at me and said, "If one test works, then there is no need for another one."

How often could we apply those same words in education?  That one test should be more than enough, if we actually are able to trust the results and choose to use them correctly?  Instead we barrage and deluge our children with test upon test, just to check once more.  How many times have we falsely diagnosed problems that were merely there because the test created it?  How many times do we ask for just one more test to make sure there isn't really a problem?  How many times will we continue down this path of only believing the tests, rather than everything else?


Monday, March 21, 2011

What Have I Done?

I wish I could say that I run my classroom like a well-oiled machine,after all isn't that what effective teachers do? In truth, it is more of an adventure as our day unfold. Sure the destination has been determined and even a tentative path, but often my studentts' questions or wonderings are just too juicy to pass up. So we veer off the path and in the end, end up with more knowledge than I could have planned for.

I teach the way I hope my daughter is taught one day. I teach my students to find their voice, to speak up, to share their ideas. At first this seemed like a trap to them, like if they really spoke their minds about schools, they were going to get into deep, serious trouble. Now, about two thirds of the year has passed and these kids are not afraid to tell me the truth. If I am speaking too long, they ask me to let them work. If a lesson is boring, they tell me so, but even better, often offer up suggestions on how to make it better. The same thing goes for praise; if they love something, the tell me, they blog about it and they tell their friends.

And so I wonder what have I done? What have I set my students up for? I will not be passing on students who are used to sitting in their desks listening to a teacher deliver all of the learning. My students will want a voice, a choice, and a goal presented to them. My students will be demanding, honest, and have high expectations that their input will be valued. What have I done?

As we change our approach in the classroom and get more in tune with how we think education should be, are we instead just harming our students by showing them a different way to learn? Would it be better if we shelved our ideas for more student-centered learning and let our students remain in the mold they have fit into for so many years? When we reform are we really just setting our students up for failure? I would love your thoughts on this.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

I Do Not Manage

I am sick of the word "manage" as in "classroom management" or even better how do you "manage" your students?

Well, I don't manage them.  I teach them, guide them, and learn along with them.  I do not come to school intent on herding cattle but rather helping young minds develop their knowledge, as well as their desires to become more knowledgeable.  I do not manage my classroom, but instead I collaborate with students to set up perimeters for us to function at our best, be our best, and want to stay that way.  I do not manage their desires to learn or become better citizens; I nourish it, sometimes light it, but always, always maintain it.

I do not manage to get through my day, I flourish through it, loving the trials, the ups and downs, the wondrous moments that come with teaching.  I do not manage my life or my curriculum, I live it, love it, and will continue to push myself as a teacher, a human being.

I am not a manager, I am a teacher, and I would like to stay that way.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

What I Pass On

When I decided to change things up in my room, I knew these students would only be mine for a year.  I knew that I had those 180 days to make an impression, to plant a seed and help them develop.  I knew that I had to let them go some day.  As spring break begins tomorrow, the letting go looms nearer and I wonder; what will I pass on?

I will pass on students that want to know what the goal of the assignment is, and not in a confrontational manner, but rather so they have clear expectations and a destination in mind.

I will pass on students who want to create.  They want a voice, not just a task.

I will pass on students that know where they work best, and yes some still choose desks, but most do not.

I will pass on students that take ownership of their learning.  Again they are partners, not just participants.

I will pass on students that will look for the global connection; that extra element that elevates a lesson.

I will pass on students that are not afraid of technology, its usage, and even know when not to use it.

I will pass on students who expect their voice to be heard and appreciated.

I will pass on students that are not just satisfied with a grade but would rather discuss what they need to change.

I will pass on students that believe in second chances, continued learning, and the power of a group.
I will pass on students who believe in their own self-worth, who believe they can make a difference and that their actions matter.

I will pass on students that have made me a better teacher, a more humble learner, a keener listener, and a kinder heart.

What will you pass on?


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What is Their Sentence?

Image from I Can Read
After seeing the post by Daniel Pink and some very inspired posts regarding "What's your sentence?"  I too have been wondering what is it I believe in?  What is my vision, my mission, my dream - what do I some day leave behind?  What is my sentence for the year, for the next 5 years, for my life?  In this thought path it struck me; what is important to me is not what is my sentence is but rather what is their sentence?

Them, those kids, those people we touch every single day; what sentence will they utter about me as they depart my classroom, my home, my life?  Those people that mean everything to me today, what will they remember about me, how will I have affected them?  What will their sentence be?  And more importantly, what would I like it to be? So I dare you to ask; what is their sentence?

So please if you will, share your "their" sentence in the comments. I have a feeling they will be powerful.

Monday, March 14, 2011

So We Breathe

We work hard in my room each and every day.  The students know that to be in a limited homework classroom, they are on the minute they get to school until they leave.  The pressure is on to stay on top of the learning, to be involved, and to grow, grow, grow.  So this week as we finished our dream project, as we inch closer to break, we breathe.  We release, we relax, and we rejuvenate.

As an educator I push my students, I make them reach for the things they are not sure they can touch, that is after all why I am there.  And yet you cannot continue to push kids to their utmost, day in, day out.  And so we breathe, we release, relax, refocus.

Academic rigor still stands, standards must be met, projects must be completed.  Yet our brains slow down, attempt to reconfigure all of this information.  We rewire our thoughts, we charge our spirits and we breathe.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

I Am Committed

We all struggle with decisions, every day, every minute. Some decisions become easier as we get more set in our ways, language we use, motions we go through, and yet some never lose their unfamiliarity, their newness, their rawness. As a teacher I cannot begin to count how many decisions I make in a day; language choice, assignments, what I bring into my room and what I take out. TO teach does not just mean to guide the learning, I am also there to make decisions.

So I wish for this for the coming week, month, and year; that whatever decisions I make, I make them fully. That once I commit myself to something, I commit the entire me. Not just a tentative part, but the whole thing. That once my thinking is through and outcomes have been weighed that I then trust myself. That I trust myself to know I made the right decision, that I trust myself enough to agree with my choice, and to perhaps even revel in it. Trust myself to fully commit. Give myself the gift of believing that I made the right decision, perhaps then I can give myself a break. Do you need to commit?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Solidarity, Protest and Tractors - Pictures from the protest

These are pictures taken at the union solidarity protest in my town of Madison, Wisconsin March 12, 2011


Friday, March 11, 2011

Don't Worry - There's a Routine for That

Image taken from ronnestam.com

Routines, one of the big words in  "teacher school" as we call it in my classroom.  You must set up routines, you must establish them, practice them, train them and share your expectations.  We have routines for everything, and it seems the younger the students are - the more routines we have.  So if you need to go to the bathroom, there's a routine for that, how to hand in homework, there's a routine for that, how to answer a question - you guessed it, there's a routine for that.  And yet as I struggle with keeping track of all of my routines, I wonder; when do the routines become suffocating?

I agree that routines must be in place for the students to know the shared expectations.  After all, accountability is one of the great skills we teach along with math, reading, writing.  Students learn to follow routines because it provides familiarity and safety.  It simply makes school and a classroom more manageable, and more effective.  And yet we can over-routine.  We can ponder and prepare routines for almost everything.  My first year, I spent a whole day preparing a sign for my students, very artistic indeed, writing out routines for what to do when you needed to sharpen your pencil or leave the classroom.  I don't think any student ever read the poster, let alone memorized it. 

So I realized that perhaps routines were needed for the really big things, like morning routine, how to go to specials or lunch routines, and general classroom behavior routine.  But beyond that, I am done.  I am done routining my students to death.  After all, they are equipped with common sense.  I do not think me writing out how and when they should sharpen their pencils is worthy of their memorization or the title of "routine."  I think I am going to stop "ruling" them to pieces and let them develop their inner sense of proper behavior.  Do we trust our students enough to pull back some of our rules masqueraded as routines?  I do.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

So What Does a B+ Mean to You - Quitting Grades Does Not Mean You are a Hippie

Quitting grades to some means to quit expectations. I used to think that if I didn't meticulously grade everything, I was inefficient, ineffective, and certainly lazy. And yet I have come to happily realize that quitting grades as much as I am allowed to do has become one of the great liberations of my young teaching experience. By quitting grades, I simply become able to better evaluate work, to in the end better "grade" my students.

When I quit putting letter grades on my papers, I did not lower my expectations for an excellent product, in fact quite the opposite happened. By removing letter grades from the final product it ceased being exactly that; final. When my students hand in an assignment now, they know it is is not done. No longer just an end product, but instead another stepping stone in our learning journey. If a test is mediocre, then they get a chance to fix it. As simple as that seems, I cannot tell you how many times I have witnessed a student say "oh" only to then erase the incorrect answer and provide the right one.

So quitting letter grades did not make me weak, simpler or even more "granola." I didn't quit letter grades because I wanted to shelter all of my students from the "real" world. I quit letter grades on assignment because they did not work. A letter grade only ever sparked a discussion when it was below what a student or parent thought was deserved. If an A- was given, a student did not take the opportunity to ask what could be better or ask what was great about it in the first place. Instead the grade was received, glanced at and the product filed away, perhaps to be shared with a parent, at some point to be shared with a recycling bin. So I didn't start to wear patchouli or run chants in my classroom, I didn't let my students academics slide to fit in with my new philosophy. Instead I challenged myself to provide better feedback, a better pathway for my students to follow to academic success.

Giving letter grades would be less time consuming then the feedback I provide now. Sometimes on busy days I even yearn for those days of easy calculations, slap on of a grade, and done with it all. Now instead I ponder, I chart, I reflect back upon previous work and then I try to write meaningful, relatable feedback that is relevant to that student. No more "Nice try" comments, but instead "You are secure in paragraph setup but still developing in sentence fluency." And that's only after all of my students actually know what a paragraph and sentence fluency is. So call me weak, call me a rebel, but don't call me a softie. Letter grades for my students has meant more work, more thought, and more academic challenge than ever before. And boy do I love my new, hippidippy ways.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Story of My Brother the Onion Boy

When I was 22, my 12 year old little brother brought a knife to school. Now before people freak out, it was a steak knife, kept in his backpack, until he needed to use it to cut open an onion.  You see, his 6th grade classroom had different plant experiments and my brother's group had decided that they would slice open an onion in a live demonstration to show the rest of the class all of the layers and even have them smell it.  So he prepared as any normal Danish student would and packed one of our normal serrated dinner knives in his backpack.  Come science time, much to his teacher's horror he pulled out the knife.  His teacher, a calm and cautious woman, sent him straight to the principal's office for a knife possession.  And then zero tolerance took over.

Had this event occurred in Denmark, nothing would have happened, in fact, my friends and I had a birthday cake commitment where every time someone had a birthday, cake and a massive bread knife was brought to school.  No big deal.  However, in this post-Columbine American era, no chances were to be taken.  So when my little brother, a straight A student, threatened to cut up that onion he was expelled from school for a year.  The school board argued that intent did not matter, what mattered was that he had brought a dangerous weapon to school and that it could fall into the wrong hands, a person who could then use it as a weapon.  They also argued that to be released back into the school system faster all he would have to do was admit he committed a crime, undergo extensive anger management therapy and anger management therapy.  The school district urged my parents to take the punishment, have him admit his guilt, and then he could return to school the following school year.  Mind you, this was March.

Most parents would not have fought, but mine did.  They saw injustice being made and more importantly, they realized that zero tolerance with no perspective of situation made zero sense.  So they hired a lawyer, a family friend who specializes in bankruptcy law, but has a sharp tongue and even sharper intellect.  The school district was shocked!  They had never had a family hire a lawyer before for an expulsion hearing and when my parents opened up the hearing to the public, the media caught wind of it.  I cannot tell you how strange it is to drive to work and have the local morning radio team lambast your little brother ,who they felt was just another privileged white kid trying to get out of his rightful punishment.  And so I swore at the radio, tried to protect my little brother, who admittedly had made a stupid mistake but a mistake nonetheless, and waited for the hearing.

I don't think there has ever been so many people to an expulsion hearing before.  I also think a lot of people were shocked at the vigorousness with which the school district's lawyer went after my little brother.    Had my parents not been in a situation to hire their own lawyer, it would have been a bloodbath, with a 6th grader as its victim.  The hearing lasted 3 1/2 hours with witnesses being called to testify to my brother's character and intent.  My brother swore he did not realize he was doing anything wrong.  Finally after 3 1/2 hours, the independent examiner told the district that the 15 days my bother had been out of school was enough punishment and that this eagerness to prosecute was overkill.  It was a victory not just for my little brother, whom we still refer to as onion boy, but for all of the students of his district because it prompted a review of the district's zero tolerance policy, and a clause was added much later that each case had to be evaluated and could not just be judged based on the same language.  A small but righteous victory indeed.

So what made me think of this even that occurred 9 years ago?  A line in this article "How I Joined Teach for America - And Got Sued for $20 Million" in which the writer states, " Furthermore, I saw from the first month that she generally gave delinquents no more than a stern talking-to, followed by a pat on the back, rather than suspensions, detentions, or any other meaningful punishment."
Meaningful punishment?  Why does those words seem to not go together?  To me they appear almost opposite of each other.  Meaningful?  When you punish a child, it is to punish, not to have them reflect or rethink, but to judge them based on their actions and then hurt them in some way, not necessarily physically.  When we suspend students, we punish them by removing them from the privilege of learning, even though this sometimes is the worst thing that can happen to them.  When we punish students for not doing their homework by keeping them in from recess, then we are taking away their rightful time to renew and reenergize before we expect them to learn again.  What would a meaningful punishment look like?  There can be a consequence, but a punishment?

So I ask you, is there such a thing as meaningful punishment?  Is it our job as educators to punish our students?  My brother fell victim to a zero tolerance policy that wanted to punish him to the outmost of its capabilities, without common sense, without the "punishment" fitting the "crime."  He was not angry, nor was he a criminal, and yet the district deemed him as such.  Since when do we get to lose our common sense when we make rules and them apply them blindly?  When do we realize that it is children's futures we have in our hands and not just percentages or statistics, but real live kids that are deeply affected by our decisions to punish.

As for Christian, he is 21 now, traveling in Asia and about to go to Denmark to study.  I miss him dearly and will never forget that phone call I got from his school back in 2002, when I was sick on my mom's couch, telling me that he had been caught with a knife, and that scared look when he realized what was going to happen to him.


Your Lips May be Moving But I Stopped Listening a Long Time Ago

A question I kept asking myself last summer was, "Would I like being my own student?"  Beside bringing back a flood of unfortunate memories of my own schooling, it also stopped me in my prep tracks.  The answer was a resounding "No."  I would have been that kid rolling their eyes at the teacher (yes, that happened daily), groaning every time a new group project was introduced (I hated group work),  and refusing to do homework out of sheer principle of boredom (and then argue with the teacher as to why it was pointless). Yikes, I am still that kid.  And so when a tweet by Jeremy MacDonald asked

"How do we get teachers past the teacher-centric use of tech? Modeling? Should I make them let me teach 30 mins in their classroom?" 

my mind started to spin.  Would simply asking teachers to sit through their own type of teaching, stop them in their tracks?  Or would the response be a more nuanced reflection discussing the need for various learning styles and types?  Or would we hear the stagnant adult claiming that, "they went through it so that is just how things are and to suck it up?"  I love that "suck it up" like school is just meant to be survived and not lived.

So how do we get teachers to rethink the traditional classroom setting?  Why is it we tend to forget our own school experience and then repeat it as teachers?  Why do most teachers come to teach prepared to speak most of the time?  I have been actively trying to stop talking and let me tell you, it is hard! Our curriculum is not set up for a lot of exploration, but rather mini activities packaged with a lot of careful monologue.  What is it about our way of educating that makes question-answer seem like the best fit?

So I start my own quiet revolution, using less words and still getting to the point.  Using less teacher-focused and more student-directed learning.  I even started thinking about it all as a learning process rather than how I am going to teach something.  In the end, we have to realize that if we want just test-taking students, then yes, talking at students will get us there.  If we want independent thinkers who are also creative and confident, then we have to stop talking.  So how do we stop talking?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

An Opportunity for Discussion

Friday is Op.Ed. day in my room and I savor this chance to ask my students some of the questions I discuss with fellow teachers. Yesterday's was "Should students have a say in what they have to learn about." To see all of their answers, head over to our kidblog. After 15 minutes of writing I asked students to share and this is where the magic happened. Several students shared and then someone blurted out a question. Nervously, they glanced at me to see if I would stop or reprimand them. I kept quiet. Question was answered by another student, and a new one came. Again glances were shot my way; I remained quiet. Well, that really got them going.

For ten minutes I sat back and let my students discuss. The kids got out of their seats, used arm gestures to underscore points, and formed smaller clusters of talking groups. Their enthusiasm was contagious and a huge smile spread across my face. This is what we try to teach our students; how to discuss, how to form opinions, and how to respond properly in a conversation. I did not teach them this, I only gave them the opportunity to engage one another.

As a teacher, I have to equip my students with life skills and those include how to have a proper discussion. I stopped the class only because they went back into kid territory of getting upset with each other. This, though, was also a learning opportunity; how do you politely disagree? How do you carry on a large group discussion? My students quickly realized that one major rule was to not interrupt each other, something I have asked for all year. And yet now they got it. They figured out the why themselves and that will always be my favorite way for them to learn.

Sometimes it is not about what we teach but the opportunities we provide. The opportunities are what matter.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Tools We Use (and Those We Don't)

                    Photo courtesy of I Can Read

As I get ready to write my second set of report cards, I realize 2/3's of the year has passed and I have some very technology savvy 4th graders.  And by savvy I mean critical, knowledgeable, and demanding tech users.  So what has stood the test of time in our classroom and what has died a silent death:

Some Favorites:

  • Kidblog - hands down the most useful tool we have integrated this year.  Through this blogging platform we have reached out to more than 20 countries around the world, have had an intimate view of the revolution in Egypt and created an ongoing writing portfolio.  I cannot believe something like this is free.
  • Animoto - a tool favored by my students to present video or still pictures as a way to give an inside view of our days and of our doings.
  • Flip Camera's - Our fantastic PTO donated 8 new cameras to our school through the Digital Wish buy 1 get 1 fee program and we have one permanently on loan in our room.  Students have created grammar videos, learning snapshots and just documented really cool things.  
  • Glogster - some of my students have the glogster bug, begging to create projects using this medium, and one even created his own glog Christmas contest.  They have gotten more creative, and better at citing through this site.
  • Google Suite - well duh, most might say, but my students have become very savvy Google users, taking initiative to search for life cycle of the crayfish when our crayfish exhibited some peculiar behaviors, as well as creating Google maps of students they speak to, and that is just the tip of the iceberg.  
  • Skype - oh yes, we skype and as the year progresses we do it more and more often.  From a quick check in with my husband (just to see what he is doing, they say) to classrooms around the world, we are bringing the world into our room.  Interested in skyping with us - let me know!
  • Wordle - ahh, yes we love our word cloud generator.  This tool has been used from everything to research, overused words, to poems about parents.  This free tool is pretty amazing.
  • Twitter - while my students are not on Twitter, this social phenomenon colors much of our every day learning.  From finding out about World Math Day to the Global Read Aloud Project, what I gain from Twitter is invaluable.
And some that seemed fun and then not so much:
  • Edmodo - this very cool social interaction site took off like wild fire and then died out with my students.  At first, they loved speaking to each other through the site from home and then they simply got bored.  Now, I think our last update was 2 weeks ago.
  • VoiceThread - I know of many educators that successfully implement this in their curriculum, but in my classroom, it wasn't wort  it.  Perhaps it was because we didn't have a paid for account and so it was rather limited usage or perhaps I didn't give it enough of a chance, whatever the case, it has been months since we used it.
  • Voki - yes I know there is a Voki for education as well, and while my students loved creating avatars of their friends, saving and uploading them was cumbersome and time consuming.
  • ToonDoo - again, I do not have an educator account for this, which means I cannot provide the safe environment that I need for my students, however, students did do a test run and while some loved it, most found it ineffective and that they could do the same work by hand much easier.
What am I missing out on?  What do you love in your classroom?  What did you give up on?  Share, share, share.


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Those Things We Carry

The shuffled movement, the slight look possibly from the left, a small gesture to be noticed. "Ummm, Mrs. Ripp can I have lunch with you?". Oh shoot, there goes that extra prep, but yes, absolutely yes, let's have lunch. Over food the words come tumbling like a bottle with it's cork pulled. Didn't even have to ask a question, they just spill out and out, away from this student, this trusting student that needs someone to carry the weight of the world with them. It is not new, not shocking, but every day life, every day fears, every day needs of wanting bigger, better, more. And yet here, it means the world.

We carry those words.

Another morning, a moment, a need for a hug and then a drawing shown. "Do you think I can make it, Mrs. Ripp?." "Of course, you can, just dream and work toward it," is what I say but what I think tells more. Work hard, little child, don't believe those people who will try to steal your dream. Don't believe those people that tell you you are not smart, that you will not amount to anything. Don't listen when they make you angry, or when they make you cry. Dream, dream on, dream strong.

We carry those dreams.

At the end of the day, a mad rush, backpacks on, cubbies emptied, and one last "Thank you for coming." I mean it too, thank you for being here, for sharing your day with me. For sticking with me when my voice got tired, or my explanation made no sense. For listening when I should have been quiet, for raising your hand patiently and waiting your turn even though you were really, really excited. Thank you for laughing, for thinking, for creating, and trying. Thank you for believing and caring, for trusting and loving, because that's what it is; trust and love and hope and hard work, every single day.

They carry those teachers; us.

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