Monday, April 30, 2012

Student Blogging Challenges - A List of Ideas

One of the things that my students love the most on our KidBlog are our weekly blog challenges.  And while these challenges are in sense homework, they always have the opportunity to do them at school, and get enough time to do it without being a hassle.  Over the past two years we have had quite a lot of fun with these, so why not share for all you blogging with your students.  Feel free to borrow or change to suit your kids.

I have broken these into categories for easier reading.

All About You
  • Imagine you have been given $100 to donate to someone or something like a charity or even to start a charitable business.   The challenge is to make your money grow whether through product or some other form.  So you need to blog about what you will do with the money, how it will grow and how much you can make it grow even more.  Your money will have 3 months to grow.
  • If you could go anywhere in time once round-trip, where would you go and why?  What would you see there?  What would you do?  Would you bring anything back or try to change the past?
  • If you could go anywhere in time once round-trip, where would you go and why?  What would you see there?  What would you do?  Would you bring anything back or try to change the past? 
  • If you could eat only one meal the next year, what would it be? 
  • If you could do one good thing this Holiday season to make others happy, what would it be?
  •  Tell me about the great traditions you have in your family. 
  •  What makes you the happiest in your life and even better how do you show how thankful you are? 
  • This week I would like to challenge you to write about about a place, from the past or the present, where you would like to live or go for a holiday or vacation.

Wacky Challenges
All About School
  • Which school rule you would change, how you would change it and why?
  • How is the year going so far?  What are you excited about?  What works for you?  What doesn’t? How can we make 5th grade better?  What should I change?
  • What would you change about school so that you would love being there?
  • Tell me what was the best, the worst, the most fun, the most boring things of the trimester?  
  • So, if you could decide what we had to learn about, what would it be?  What would our goals be? How would we learn about it? And how would we pass that learning on? 
  • What does a principal do all day?  What qualities does a principal have and what do they do in the summer?
  • You are the teacher; which class would you add to school curriculum that we don't already have?  When would the class meet, what would the students do?  What would it look like, feel like, sound like?  And what would the students produce to show their learning?
Your Thoughts on Education and School
  • What is the true purpose of education?  Why do you go to school?  Why do you learn what you have to learn?
  • Is teaching and learning the same thing or not?
  • Should education be fun?
  • Give me your thoughts on tests!  Do you think they help or hurt your learning?  What do you suggest to teachers about tests?

Academic Related and Story Writing
  • You need to write to other teachers and tell them about the Global Read Aloud.
  • I want you to tell the world about Innovation Day!
  • Tell everyone about the simulation in social studies 
  • Keep a science diary of our experiments and answer any questions people may leave in the comments.
  • Write a book review of the book you are currently reading.
  • Explain what the author study is, who you chose to study and why.
  • Finish the story, “The crash came from around the corner…”
  • Finish the sentences:  Being a good teacher means…. Being a good student means… 
  • What do you love when teachers do in their classrooms?  What do you wish I did as a teacher? If you were a teacher how would you run your classroom?
Challenges from Students:

  • If you were to go inside of a book, what book would you go inside of, and what would you do?
  • Create a blogging challenge for other students to do.
  • If you could create your own country, what would it be called, where would it be, and what language would the residents speak?

All About Blogging
  • Should we continue to blog or not, convince me!
  • So how has blogging helped you as a writer?  What do you like about blogging?  What do you not like?  What would you change?  Would you continue blogging next year if you could?
  • What are the rules for blogging, how do you stay safe?
  •  Now that you have tried it, what would you tell other kids and teachers about blogging?  What should they know before they start?  What should they be careful with?  How can they get people to comment?  Any advice for people who want to blog but don’t know how?
  • Pick one student from another blog and introduce yourself properly 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Please Don't Become A Teacher...

If you believe that those who can't; teach.

Please don't become a teacher if you think you just get to play with kids all day, leave when they leave, and just have them work from a textbook.

Don't become a teacher because you think it will shelter you from the demands of a high paying job, or give you those summers off to pursue your real interests.

Please don't become a teacher if it seems like an easy job where all you have to do is fill students' minds and then test them on it afterwards.

But do become a teacher if you believe in all children, not just those with fortunate lives.

Become a teacher if you want to be part of someone's life, good or bad.  If you see the world through challenges and things to explore.

Please do become a teacher if you have unwavering faith, love, and patience.   If you are not afraid of change, have convictions, and honestly believe that ALL children can succeed.

Then become a teacher; if your heart is in it, because it must be in it to endure all of the outside demands that we face.  Please do become a teacher if you want to grow and have a job that changes you as a person while you help change others.  Become a teacher if you have much to give, much to love, and much to believe.  But if you don't, please don't become a teacher.

Inspired by this sad secret on postsecret


Friday, April 27, 2012

Even With Our Changed Classrooms, Have We Changed Anything At All?

Image from icanread

It relates to school because there are calculators...

It relates to school because he uses math in counting out the tickets ...

It has to do with math and that is why it has to do with school...

My students are journaling about the movie "Caine's Arcade" and how it relates to school.  These wonderfully creative, powerfully imaginative students don't see the deep connections between the environment that I try to create and that of Caine.  They don't see how I try to challenge them to problemsolve, to create, to use materials in different ways.  to try, to fail and to have hope and perseverance.

Instead they see a 9-year-old boy who realized life was more than calculators and math.  That you could build something with what you have and have a little bit of hope.  They see that boy as an inspiration, his arcade as incredible, but not those things in the environment we create here, at school. 

What a lesson for me to be taught; school is still seen as its own world with set rules.  Segmented and regimented.  As something departmentalized from creativity, or at least where creativity is built into the day, scripted and called for.  School is viewed as something to be lived through so the real experimenting can happen afterwards.  I may think I do things differently, but I may be the only one.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

We Don't Need Any More" How To Cope With Homework Lists" - What We Need Is a Debate!

Summer is coming and with that an onslaught of parenting magazines on how we can help our children cope with homework.  Cope - what an interesting word when combined with homework.  I know when I assigned homework regularly I thought I was adding to my students' educational experience.  I thought I was deepening their thinking, to perhaps help them, teach them, deepen their knowledge.  Instead, it appears, I was merely helping them develop coping with a necessary evil. I was setting them up for whatever adult job that requires homework, I am still looking for this one,.

So, parenting magazine, how about an article on why homework should be revisited, why the whole merit of homework is diminishing and why homework really doesn't need to be assigned.  How about giving parents a resource to start the conversation, the discussion that should be happening at all schools, particularly primary ones, about why homework can be outlawed.  How we can still teach students time management, perseverance, and study skills without homework?  Who will publish that article?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

So This Is How A Teacher Breakdown Starts

My students are doing their spring assessments as we prepare to wrap up the year and send them on their way.  An innocent computer check-in that takes less than an hour, nothing to be worried abot really.  The kids know it is not a big deal, to do their best, that this is only a snapshot of their skills on that particular day, at that particular time.

And yet....the dread is rising in me.  How will they do?  How will they feel about the test?  Will the test know that they are excited about the talent show results?  That they are hungry?  That they have had a high intensity day and their brains may be just a little zonked?  Of course it won't, and why should it, the test doesn't care one iota about my students.  

But I do and that is my problem.  With every point they gain or lose, my anxiety soars.  How will it affect me as a teacher if a child lost 4 points, whatever that means.  What did I do wrong since they didn't make momentous gains on this test while in class they have blown me away with their increased participation, their inferences, and their overall depth of knowledge?  Why can't the test understand that all of these kids have grown, whether they wanted to or not?  Why can't the test prove that?

So I take a deep breath and let the results stand.  The tests are done, the points have been given and I am trying to piece together what I need to change.  What I need to salvage, what I need to challenge myself in.  And I breathe a little more, realizing that much like I told my students, I also need to believe that this is just a snapshot.  This is just a moment in their life, this moment in time where they are performing at this set level.  That this does not determine their future success, their future growth, or even their future.  Perhaps it will determine mine, but that I need to worry about another day.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Some Say They Are Too Young, I Say, "Trust Them..."

My kids being kids

Even though my fifth graders may beg to differ, they are just kids. Wonderful, young, impressionable things, eager to change the world, kids that have lived a little and still have much to learn. They are young, indeed, but passionate, open, and never ever afraid of a challenge. And yet most just see their age, their made by date, and definitely their grade level.  So should I be surprised when critics claim they are too young for more advanced technology? That serious use of technology shouldn't really start until middle school, that fifth grade is just too early?

I suppose I could be upset at statements that try to limit what my students are capable of.  I suppose I should fire back with witty sarcasm or scathing words. I suppose I should bring that anger home and fume over peoples' assumptions. But I don't, at least not anymore. Instead I plot and plan, I reach out to those who have great ideas and I get really really stubborn. We shall show them after all.

So when some think Prezi is too hard for ten year olds we prove it is not. Or when people are not sure that my students should blog because what could they possibly have to share, we become role models for others. Flip video cameras may have been killed off but in our classroom the students grab them whenever they get a chance to document their learning. PowerPoint becomes an entry point into creation with other possibilities beckoning us further.

They may be young my students, but they are not afraid. So tell us we cannot do something, or even better, tell us that we are really too young to figure it out, and I will show you 22 students that disagree. I will show you 22 students that cannot wait to prove you wrong, after all, you wouldn't be the first.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

You Don't Own Their Summer

Thea enjoying her vacation
Summer vacation is starting to sneak into our school minds as stealthily as the first signs of a cold.  A mention of a vacation planned here, some raised trepidation about next year, begging for me to transfer to 6th grade.  And so while we plow on through all of our projects, still staying focused, I think of the things the students could be doing during that break; math facts, reading, fixing mistakes in their brain so that they start fresh the following year, perhaps even a little bit ahead, ready to conquer the world of 6th grade.  And then I am reminded; I don't own their summer.

Already we have been given gentle recommendations to assign math games over summer. Some students know they will be expected to finish a math book, others to read a classic book or two.  And my outrage starts to bubble.  We don't own their summer, we don't own their summer, we don't own their summer.

Summer vacation in America may be too long for some kids.  It may lead to the infamous summer slide, loss of knowledge, skill setbacks that will lead to worse test results, but we don't own their summer.  Their summer is for them to explore, to renew, to breathe, to invest in whatever catches their interest.  Perhaps their summer will have nothing to do with school and yet everything to do with learning.  Perhaps their summer will be spent reading book after book, perhaps just being at a pool.  Whatever they choose to do with their time is none of our business.

And sure, of course those that assign homework for a class that starts after summer, they have the best interest of their students in mind.  Yet the truth is, you have no right to that time.  You have no power over whether they do it or not.  You cannot expect them to come having read 2 books, or written a paper, or done a packet of math problems.  You can ask them to, but you cannot demand it.  You may say that the summer work is like preparing for a job, but guess what, even jobs give you time off.  You may say that summer work is in the best interest of the students, to keep them out of trouble, well, let them make that decision.  You may say that if they don't work over the summer you will never get through everything you have to cover; that is a time management problem not something you can push onto the students.

You can hope that their summer is spent learning.  That their summer is spent finding new interests.  That their summer wasn't just a big break from anything strenuous, but you cannot decide what they should do. You cannot decide what constitutes summer learning or not, because, yes, that's right, you don't own their summer.

Friday, April 20, 2012

If We Would Just Stop Talking We Might Learn Something

Image from icanread

Note: After publishing this post today, its original title "If They Could Just Sit Still They Might Learn Something" didn't seem to fit it anymore.  After all, that title once again puts the blame on the students.  Thus this new title which focuses on where the problem lies; within me.

You know the group of students; those impulsive, blurter-outers that poke each other during class and never quite seem to be listening to what you are doing.  Those kids that are in every class who the more we yell, the less they do.  Those kids I thought I had figured out until recently.  Well those kids have been teaching me quite the lessons lately.  Those kids have reminded me why I changed my teaching style in the first place and now I stand renewed, refocused, and definitely re-humbled.

First lesson; Don't assume they don't know something.  After a few days lessons with some students I kept thinking that their gaps were huge, that their knowledge was lacking, that they had missed out on so much.  Until I started to pay attention.  Then instead of whole concepts missing, I realized there were small misconceptions that needed to be tweaked, things that needed to be defined, items that should be refreshed.  It wasn't that they were missing entire units, rather that some of their remembering was just a little off.

Second lesson; Talking more will not teach them more.  I kept droning on trying to cover everything that I thought they had missed or needed reinforced; is it any wonder that they grew more and more restless?  When raising my voice didn't seem to change the situation, it dawned on me that I needed to stop talking.  Let them work, switch up the task, and stop hogging the lime light.  Have mini projects, get them moving, even use mini whiteboards, anything to make them active.  Switch it up!

Third lesson; Give them time to think.  I was so excited when one student knew the answer that I called on them to be more efficient.  That way we could cover more material since all I was looking for was the answer anyway.  When we take away students' time to think though we rob them of the chance to explore their procedures, to gain confidence, and to learn something.  It is not about the answer, it is about how you get there.

Fourth lesson; Bring back the fun.  Often when faced with students who seem to be struggling with concepts we switch to drill and kill mode.  We take away the "fun" projects because that wont teach them enough.  Unfortunately those projects and hands-on activities are just what we need.  These students have already been taught something the traditional way, now lets think of another way to explore it.  Anything hands-on activity always seems better than just more and more practice.

Fifth lesson; Let them teach.  When a student gets something, let them explain how they did it.  Let them get the confidence they need to speak to a whole group of peers.  Let them boast a little to build confidence.  Don't just tell them, "Good job," let them have their moment because perhaps that hasn't happened very often.

Sixth Lesson; Don't punish.  When students were blurting out and drowning me in side conversation, my brain immediately switched to consequence mode.  Amazing how it still lurks below the surface, ingrained somewhere, even now after almost 2 years with no classroom punishment.  Instead of punishing though, I came up with a solution; a simple post it on their desk.  Now when they blurt out an answer or jab at each other they have to put down a tally mark.  I just make a check motion with my finger and they know, it is between the student and I.  Nothing is done with the amount of tallies, it is simply a way for them to see how much they blurt out.  Several students have already told me after two days of this that they cannot believe they blurt out so much.  Self-awareness beats punishment any day.

When students are loud, out of their seats or simply not focused, we tend to blame the student.  We tend to think that something is wrong with their concentration rather than looking inward and wondering what can we change about ourselves?  What can we change about our delivery?  And while these lessons are not a fix all plan, they are helping me teach these students better.  They are reminding me what it feels like to not understand something and still want to learn.  They are reminding me that I can be boring and dry as a teacher and that it has a direct effect on the students.  Once again, my students taught me something important and for that I am thankful.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Well Hello Adobe and Thank You For Coming To Our Room!

Being a teacher with pretty tech savvy 5th graders means I am constantly on the look out for ideas of how to integrate technology into our lessons.  And while I do love technology, I never want to integrate it just for the sake of the tool, but rather to ensure a deeper level of exploration and inquiry for my students.  We use Flip video cameras quite a bit in our room whether to record our learning, create video projects, or even make presentations for other students.  Yet whenever we had recorded footage we always ran into a major obstacle; no editing software other than Flipshare or Windows Movie Maker.  And sure these programs work alright, they just are not that kid friendly and definitely not up to what our students want to create.  So when Adobe contacted me and wanted to know if I would be interested in trying out some of their software for them and then review it, I jumped at the chance.  Maybe, just maybe, their Premier Elements software is exactly what we have been looking for.

So I told my students about this opportunity and they got as excited as I did.  I am in constant awe of their fearlessness of new technology.  Talk about a huge lesson we as teachers should learn!  Yesterday the software was finally installed on my computer at school thanks to my awesome tech integrator Linda and I cannot wait to have the students use it.  So far the first project we will use the software for will be creating 5th grade survival videos for the incoming 4th graders as a way of working on our script writing and fluency/expression.  I cannot wait to share our honest opinion about the Adobe software and how it worked in the hands of my talented 5th graders.

So from time to time, you may see a post about Adobe and as always it will feature my unbiased opinion - or even better, that of my students. I am as curious as many other elementary educators whether Adobe software can be used at our level, so there will be no holds barred when it comes to reviews.  For now, if you already have access to Adobe software at your school, do check out the Adobe Education Exchange; super great resource for ways to integrate their technology created by other teachers.  I have been exploring it and finding it easy to access and search for grade specific resources.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Purpose of Education According to My Students

Wordle: Purpose of education

I know we as educators frequently discuss what we think the purpose of education is.  Fancy words and creative sentences abound when this noble philosophy is discussed.  We debate, digest and dissect until we feel we have reached some form of conclusion, that is, until someone new sparks a different discussion and we ponder it all over again.  Yet how often do we ask our students that question?  How often do we ask them what the purpose is of education and then listen to their answer?

Well, last week I unleashed the question on my fabulous 5th graders who took the time to ponder and then blog about it.  And they would love to hear your thoughts!  However, a couple of things struck me as a trend in their answer, so much so that Wordle even agrees with me. 

-  There is a purpose to education, it is not just a waste of time.
-  Education somehow prepares us for life after school and without we may not be succesful (something I don't totally agree with)
-   Education is related to their life

I loved what Karina wrote;
Why is Education so important to kids and adults? This question made me really think.  I have heard kids say ” Why do I have to go to school.” and their parents say ” Because you have too.”  It is not the easiest question to answer but if you think about, it is actually easy.  My first answer was… This man screwed up his life and does not want it to happen to anybody else.  After I thought that for a little bit it came to me. It was that people way way back used writing and reading to escape from people who controlled them and didn’t treat them well.  If people were educated to write and read then they had more choices in life.  They could work a lot of different  jobs.  Education gives us choices in life.

Emphasis added by me.

No matter what we decide the noble purpose of education is, I love how my student, David, adds another dimension to the question.  He finishes his post with, 

"A final and really important reason for going to school is making friends. I mean, it feels good to talk to someone when you are sad, really excited, bored and just to talk! You need to know how to interact with people if your job requires it."

So perhaps education from the eyes of a 5th grader is just to prepare them for life outside of school, to teach them to read or write, but in the end it is also about developing them as human beings, to maintain them as someone who others want to be friends with.  And that is indeed a noble purpose.


Sunday, April 15, 2012

Why "I Don't Know" is Powerful

Image form icanread

That first year of teaching when a child asked a questions I did not have the answer for I stalled.  I hemmed, I hummed, I did a little dance and then either hoped they would forget their question, that another child would know the answer or that class would be over so that I could quickly figure out what the answer was.

I didn't think I could say, "I don't know..."

Go to my second year of teaching and another question from another child, again; stalling, nervous glances, some vague reply hoping to satiate curious minds, but otherwise, same approach.  Glance at bell, dismiss the question, hope for a lifeline, wish that my principal or a parent wouldn't see me in this position.  Anything but to admit my own inadequacy of not being the master teacher and simply not knowing something.

I never thought to say, "I don't know..."

Third year of teaching and I realized I wasn't the only expert in the room.  One child knew more about wars at 10 years old than I would ever be able to cram into my head.  Another was an expert on poetry.  The questions kept coming but my approach to them changed; I stopped being afraid of them and realized that not knowing something was powerful.  Not knowing something and admitting it  was a sign of strength, a learning opportunity to model how I would find out.  Now instead of nervous glances at the door, hoping no one would ever discover that I didn't have all of the answers, I asked the students for help.  How would we find out, why was this a great question, did anyone else know?

This year, I am fully aware that I am not the only expert, I embrace it daily.  That I am not supposed to know everything.  That I am not supposed to pretend I do.  Instead, I am there to show what happens when we don't know.  To show that even though I did my preparations for class I couldn't put everything into my head but I have ways to help me through any question.  Now my students know to try to find the answer first using a multitude of sources instead of just asking me.  Now I ask my students questions that make them say, "I don't know..."

I now know the power of "I don't know..."

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

But How Do You Really Get Rid of Homework and Still Know Where Students Are At?

Image from here

One great thing about blogging about what happens in our classroom and to me as a teacher is that I am often asked to clarify how all of this works.  So after my latest post "My Kid iS Drowning in Homework" I received an email from Mr. Feltman asking me some questions.  I figured my answer back might be helpful to others as well, so with his permission here is our communication.

Mr. Feltman wrote;
If you don't mind, I'd like to ask a few questions, that would assist us in this endeavor.

Do you have research or articles backing this up?

What percentage of tests and other activities make up the students grades? (another way to ask is when you switched to "no homework" how was your class grading scale affected?)

How do you assess their mastery of learning (especially poor test takers)?

And here is my answer (emphasis added by me);
I do have research and articles!  A big push for me came from Alfie Kohn's book "The Homework Myth" in which he collects a lot of research about it, and other sources which I have some of here

I did want to do my research as well so that my principal would back me.

Along with the no homework I am opposed to letter grades, however, my district is not.  So the compromise I have figured out in my room is that students only get letter grades on their trimester report cards, and those  are decided through discussion with me after we have decided as a class what each letter grade means.  The limited homework that does go home is therefore not used to determine grades but rather to determine instruction needs.  So my grading scale was affected in a positive way since students know that if they do work in class and hand it in, we discuss and dissect it and then figure out their needs from there.  There is no final letter-grade assigned to it but rather a common conclusion is given and we determine the path from there.

Tests are part of my formative assessment and students are mostly given a chance to revise and rethink their answers.  I do not want a snapshot of that kid at that time, I want to gauge their overall understanding.  Because the pressure of letter grades (and the finality aspect of a test) has been removed, students also tend to work through assessments much more calmly because they know I am looking for their depth of understanding rather than the pressure to perform right then and there.  This has provided me with a much more comprehensive view of the child's abilities, which in turn I communicate to parents through feedback and observations.

Mastery of learning is shown in many ways.  I always think of what the large goal is or the skill and through conversation or even in-class work I can figure out if they have mastered that skill.  Math tends to be the only area where there is daily work (class time is given for this) but other than that most students are involved in longer projects covering a range of goals from the common core and district standards.

I know giving up homework can seem daunting but once you take the plunge it really isn't that scary.  Sure you will have some parents that do not understand it but if you communicate your intentions clearly; mine are to keep school at school as long as the students work hard, then parents seem to come on board.  Getting rid of homework means I have to be much more on top of class time and what we need to get done with a focus on the larger goals rather than small worksheets where the students just regurgitate information or daily work that could be covered in a long-term project.  

Thank you for the email Mr. Feltman and good luck!

Monday, April 9, 2012

My Kid Is Drowning in Homework - Why Parents Should Be Speaking Up and How

Mathematics homework
Mathematics homework (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Thea is only 3 and is nowhere near the homework assigning level, thank goodness. And yet, already it is an issue I come back to frequently in my mind, particularly as I get my fabulous 5th graders ready for middle school.  Speaking to some middle school teachers and hearing to expect at least 1 1/2 hours of homework every night and that no regard is taking for homework assigned by other teachers.  Yikes.  From a teacher perspective I have made my stance clear on how I feel about homework and how over-assigned it is, but what about for parents?  What can you truly do as a parent when sending your child to school to help them handle the insanity of homework as well as to maybe, just maybe, start a dialogue with their teachers?  Here a few things to start you out.

  • Get clarification on general statements.  If a teacher throws out an arbitrary number for homework minutes like I used to do on orientation day, ask them what it looks like.  When they say 50 minutes of homework, which child are they referring to?  Are they referring to a well-adjusted, high-level learner, or to a more sluggish paced child?  Which child will spend 50 minutes? Is that the maximum any child will spend?  At the very least it may make the teacher think about the 10 minutes X grade level rule so many of us have used as our standard.
  • Ask whether there will be punishment involved.  What happens to the child that does not do their homework?  Different teachers have different policies.  Some take away recess, something I shy away from because I don't think I have the right to, others give them a chance to make up for it.  Some, like me, simply ask them to bring it the following day or try to not assign much.  This is going to directly effect your child and their view of homework, so do ask what will happen if they don't hand something in.
  • Figure out your parental level of involvement.  Are you supposed to help or is this homework only for the child?  How are you allowed to help?  Would the teacher rather know if the child cannot complete a task by themselves (one would hope so!).  These are all important questions to ask as well and leads directly to the next point.
  • Ask what the purpose of homework is.  Is it used for grading?  Is it used for assessment?  Why does their homework look like it does and what is the end result of that homework?  This discussion goes way beyond just a general statement but it is vital.  Too often we assume that whatever a teacher assigns must have value otherwise it wouldn't be assigned.  Having been that teacher I can tell you that is not the case!  So find out what the purpose is.
  • Search your soul.  Many of us think homework should be something certain because of what we experienced but even for this youngish teacher, school has changed drastically since I graduated.  Make sure that your homework expectations are not based on what you feel helped you as a learner, figure out instead what will help your child, after all you do know them better than the teacher but they are not you, no matter how much we see the resemblance.
  • Ask questions.  I am never bothered when parents ask me questions, in fact, I cherish their feedback and often wisdom about their child.  I differentiate assignments, I give class time and I try to not involve parents much simply because it is not them that need to learn a concept.  Yet I still fail sometimes, I still learn from my mistakes and I don't always have the answer to something.  So start a dialogue and start it early, it can be something as simple as a line or two in an email and does not need to be often.  It will benefit all parties involved all year.
  • And finally, stand your ground.  As a parent I will expect Thea to apply herself in school and to give school her best in the hours she is there.  Once she is home, homework should not take up the majority of her afternoon and evening.  As she gets older, sure, there will be projects, papers, reading etc.  But she should not be having to give up most of her free time for worksheets or other repetitive tasks, and I will discuss this with her future teachers.  You can do this nicely and it may lead to a very interesting conversation.  Simply said; it is ok for parents to question a teacher's homework philosophy.


Thursday, April 5, 2012

She Has Gone Home

The phone call came this afternoon.  As I stepped out of a meeting the message light beckoned and on there was my mother's voice giving me the inevitable news; mormor had passed.  As we mourn as a family we cry not for her but for ourselves, for we are the children left behind.  She gets what she wanted; peace and to be be with her husband.  We also get what we wanted; her to be in peace, with no pain, together with the man whom she loved more than anything.  And yet, the sorrow has just begun to settle in.

I now go through the world without any grandparents but that doesn't mean I don't have a past.  I will show my children the videos of these two people who showed me what dedication and love means.  What perseverance and staying together looks like in our much too frantic society.  We have proof that love matters most; it is our veins, it is in our heritage.  It is up to us to pass it on.

Tomorrow would be the day, 66 years ago, that my grandparents met each other and fell in love.  I cannot think of anything more beautiful than that my grandmother got to go be with my grandfather once again.  That perhaps tomorrow she gets to meet him again, wherever they are, and now they don't ever have to leave the other one behind.  So I smile through my tears and vow to never forget and to carry them with us wherever we go.  Mormor heard about the twins, how they are a boy and a girl, and I cannot help but wonder if Ida and Oskar wont get just a little bit of my grandparents soul in them.  I hope so.

Gender Bias in Assessment - Even Students Do It, Do You?

"...But Mrs. Ripp, it is sloppy so they cannot get a 4..."
"... We can hardly read their explanation so we gave it a lower grade... "

All comments that made me think in today's math class as students were assessing work samples to get them ready to assess their own work.  Their open response work involved multiple steps, illustrations and explaining their work. They were therefore provided what we as teachers are provided; student sample work to figure out what the work was worth based on a 4-0 rubric.  After partner discussions, students shared their rankings of the problems and the most common discussion point was the sloppiness of the writing, not the math presented, not the explantion, not whether they followed directions; instead a laser-like focus on handwriting neatness and presentation.

I kept my mouth shut and handed them all a post-it note, asked them to copy a sentence off the board and write their name lightly on the back of the post-it.  I didn't ask them to take special care with their note, just write it down.  They handed them in and one-by-one I asked them to decide whether a note was sloppy or not as shown under the document camera.  I didn't know the names of the note writers but sure enough all the notes that were deemed neat and not sloppy were those written by girls.  Not a single boy post-it note was in the pile.  My students sat quietly as I gave them some think time.  Then I said; "If you were a boy and I assessed your work based on your handwriting presentation you would not be able to get a full score.  You would never be able to acheive what a girl can achieve in this class."  Silence and crazy stares. 

When teachers base part of their grade on handwriting and neatness, particularly at the elementary level, we forget one important thing; handwriting is often determined more by our fine motor skill development and not the effort placed in the work.  Neat handwriting does not mean a fuller understanding or a better writer, it does not mean more care was taken with the work, or that more effort was put in.  Neat handwriting means just that; neat handwriting.  So unless that is what we are specifically assessing it should not be part of our assessment, even if our inner voice screams at us to include it.

Try the same experiment with your students, see if you get similar results and then watch them discuss it.  Watch them realize how their knowledge is judged based on their handwriting.  Watch them gain a deeper understanding of all of the inner voices they carry telling them what makes work quality or not.  It is quite a realization for teachers and students alike.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Do You Dare Ask for Student Feedback?

Yesterday, in a quiet moment of inspiration, as my students were presenting their super hero projects and getting a little droopy eyed, I stopped them and asked for feedback.  And not just great postive statements, but things I should change, things I should keep, things thats hould be removed altogether.  We started with the positives; they loved how I didn't make them write a comic book but rather focused it on character and setting.  They loved the creative aspect, the shared writing, and all of the exmples.  And then I asked what they would change.  After one brave student raised their hand and gave me a suggestion of more partner share, then many joined in and added their suggestions.  These suggestions were better than my original ideas!  I sat there 10 minutes of listening and writing, dumbfounded that I hadn't done this for every single project.

When we decide to ask students how they really feel we run the risk of being told that we suck, to use a favorite 5th grade word.  We run the risk of being told we are boring, that the project was uninspired, and that they would never do it to another student.  (You know a project is bad when it is "done" to you).  But we also run the risk of getting better ideas, constructive criticism, and valid points that propel our projects further into student-directed learning, further into deeper knowledge acquisition.  My students took ownership of the project as well as their criticism.  They didn't feel the need to apologize for what they were about to say but  phrased it specifically and unemotionally.  They knew that I knew it wasn't an attack on me.

So do we dare to ask the students for feedback on all their learning?  Do we dare take 10 minutes of our day to ask for suggestions, even if just one in a while?  Do we dare to actually do something with those suggestions because any fool can listen but it takes courage and dedication to do.  My students showed me yesterday that they trust me enough to share their opinions, they know I will take their words to heart and I will actually change what I did.  They know this because I have proved to them what my intentions are.  What a huge success in a 5th grade classroom.  So ask yourself; have I involved my students?  Have I asked for their feedback and opinion? Those that the learning affect the most?  Or am I too scared to do it? 

Monday, April 2, 2012

Oh No, Not Another Change - Why Stay Skeptical When Curiosity is More Fun?

Image from icanread

A new curriculum is announced for next school year... again.  Every year since I have started something new has been introduced and so I find myself in the back of the group, murmuring about how once again something new is coming, more money being spent, more time needed to learn, to understand, to adapt.  Once again I have to rewrite everything.  Once again; change.  I go home and discuss it with Brandon who stops me in my tracks with a simple question; why not get excited about it?  And I think, yes, why not, indeed?

Why not replace my skepticism with curiosity?  Why not embrace the new like I do within my own classroom; try it out and then judge it.  Why am I, already, after only 4 years of changing turning into that teacher, you know, the one that is quick to judge.  The one that jumps to conclusions, the one that wants things to stay the same because they are not broken and do not need to be fixed, thank you very much.  I change things every year, I hardly ever use the same lessons, I change so it fits my kids, my mood and my goals.  I change because if I became static I would be bored out of my mind and few things are worse than a bored teacher  So why am I already so stuck in my teaching ways that I have to be the one adding negative thoughts to a new initiative?  I don't know how that happened so soon.

So I renew my vow of positivity.  I want to embrace the new, which does not mean going into it blind, but rather than I will stay open to it.  I will explore it, adapt it and make it work for me.  I will give things a change, suspend my judge.  Stay curious and not assume it will be awful.  I am much too young to be so stuck in my ways and that is a healthy lesson for me to learn.  Let's hope I don't forget it.

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