Thursday, May 31, 2012

Have You Asked For Parent Feedback - You Should, Even If It Hurts...

I click on the link nervously, not sure that I really want to read what I am about to see, and yet I must if I want to continue being a reflective teacher that realizes that she still has a lot to learn.  What has sent my palms into such a clammy mess?  Results from my end of the year parent survey....  Something I have forced myself to do the last two years, all in the name of bettering myself.

So why the trepidation?  Well, even though most parents don't take issue with how I teach, or we iron things out along the way, sending someone an anonymous survey to fill out makes anyone nervous.  Particularly when those someones are people who have seen the direct result of your teaching on their child for a whole year.  Particularly when those someones speak to other someones who may just have a child going into 5th grade.  Particularly when those someones really have a right to tell you exactly how they feel because their kid is involved, which means they are involved.

And yet it took me 2 years to get to that point.  It took me that long to want to hear what parents truly had to say.  It took me 2 years to have enough confidence to be able to really listen without getting offended, without taking it like a personal attack.  Without feeling they were automatically in the wrong if they didn't love everything I had done.

So now it is with gratitude, and of course still trepidation that I read the answers they provide.  I know I do school differently than most of them are used to.  I know my philosophy sometimes stands in a stark contrast to those of my amazing team members.  I know this 5th grade experience may be vastly different than that of 6th grade.  So I ask the tough questions and then hold my breath.  I ask how I can improve, what I should focus on next year,  whether I did a good enough job, because I truly do want to hear the answers.  I truly do want the truth so that I can grow.  There are always answers that go straight to my heart, those that make me reflect and rething, refine and reconsider.  And I am thankful for that.

Asking for feedback is never easy.  Listening to the feedback is even harder, and yet, I don't look back.  I urge others to do the same; ask the questions and then really really listen to those answers.  Don't ask because you feel you have to, ask because you want to grow.  Even if it hurts and stings.  Even if it is not what you had hoped to hear.  We are not perfect, or at least I am not.  I still have a lot of growing to do.

PS:  My parent survey changed a lot this year thanks to help from Kaitlyn Gentry who was kind enough to share her end of year survey with me.


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Change Doesn't Have to be All or Nothing

I remember the first orientation day when I had to face parents and explain to them that their child would probably not have much homework in my classroom.  I remember the fear that almost made me choke on my words, the way I had to remind myself to look up, the way I held my breath waiting for a reaction.  Then I added that instead of letter grades students would get feedback and we would set goals, grades would only show up on trimester report cards and no where else.  By now I was breaking into a cold sweat, my stomach churning, hands were clammy.  Somebody had to react, and then...nothing.  No raised hands, no sour faces, just a quiet wait for what else I had to share. 

Big changes for sure coming from this sophomore teacher.  Big changes that I felt had been necessary for me to be a better teacher and to provide a better education for the students.  Big changes that I had decided to do all at once.  And yet, you don't have to.  Even though I speak passionately about how throwing out grades or limiting homework has been the best decision I have ever made, that is exactly it; it was my decision.  Something that I knew I had to do to restore my sanity, my passion for teaching.  And yet, that doesn't mean it is going to work for you.  Perhaps my ideas are too extreme, or just do not fit with your educational philosophy and that is perfectly fine.  But maybe, just maybe, you would be willing to try it for just one little assignment?

Perhaps you are curious but just not ready to go all out.  Perhaps the idea of limiting homework overall sounds insane but maybe it could be tried for a unit?  Perhaps rather than a letter grade, for one project, feedback could be given or students could assess themselves?  Perhaps just trying something different one time will work better for you?  Perhaps, you might like it, perhaps you wont, but perhaps one time will change your mind?

As a first year teacher, if someone had told me to limit homework, or to get rid of grades, I would have rolled my eyes and not listened.  I would have thought them radical, extreme, or totally clueless.  I was not ready for that type of teaching.  I was not ready to take my teaching in that direction.  That direction had to come from within me, the timing had to be right, as did the purpose.   And that is ok.  It is ok to not embrace what Alfie Kohn says.  It is ok to have faith in whatever one believes is the way to teach, there is room for us all in education.  But perhaps, we should all try something else, just once, and then see if that change is meant for us or not. 


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Let's Discuss Your Weaknesses and Watch You Soar

As someone who doesn't hand out grades but rather assesses and has feedback discussions with students, I shudder at the word "weakness."  I shudder at the thought of sharing a child's weaknesses with them based on a test.  I shudder at the thought of pointing anything out as a weakness.  Now, don't call me sentimental or foolhardy, but hear me out.  I know that all of us have weaknesses, I know that we all have things that need work and time and dedication.  And yet, how many of us soar to the challenge of overcoming a weakness when we are told those words exactly; this is a weakness for you?

Weakness tends to connotate something set in stone, a character trait that cannot be manipulated or changed.  Weakness means that a child fails in an area, that this is their achilles heel that can slay the rest of their results.  Weakness is everything opposite of strength.  You tell a cild multiple times that math is their weakness and yes they will believe you.  They will leave your classroom having resigned themselves to the fact that math is something they will never master, that it is a weakness, and totally out of their hands.

Why not flip the word on its head and tell them it is a challenge?  Why not discuss with students how they are still developing in some areas and they should focus on conquering those?  Why not be realistic but not demolish their learning?  We all have things we need to focus on.  We all have things/ideas/concepts that are not our strengths.  And yet, when we choose to call them weaknesses we accept them as such.  We are done fighting to change them and instead can hold up our badge of weakness and shrug, oh well, it is just my weakness.

Words have power, we know that, and the word "weakness" has so much power it can effectively slay a person.  Let's use our words to build, to challenge, to be realistic but make it attainable.  Let's not stop a child in their tracks.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Throwing Out Grades Doesn't Mean Throwing Out Expectations

I used to be the queen of the "F."  If a student wasn't handing in their homework, I whipped out the calculator and quickly showed them what would happen to their percentage if they kept getting zeroes.  If a student wasn't paying attention, I would show them how they would probably not do well on the test and boy that would lead to an F as well.  And what if they didn't behave, well somehow, the threat of an F could be used even then because I couldn't have a child who was being disrespectful get a good grade.  They simply didn't deserve the good grades if they couldn't sit down, listen and be good students.  So that 60% nipped them in their heels, waiting to swallow them up if they ever slowed down in our academic race.  We had things to do, papers to complete, and projects to hand in.  Get on it or that F is coming for you.

Now I don't worry about the F because in my 5th grade room a child cannot get it as a grade.  And before you throw me in the fires of being an unrealistic teacher who isn't teaching their students what the "real" world is like, let me explain.  The students I get to teach are all learning.  Some faster than others, some more deeply than others, but even a child that hands in a mediocre project at best has learned something.  They have garnered some sort of knowledge and that to me means they have not failed.  That F is removed from the equation because it ends up being meaningless when grades are not used throughout the year.  It loses its strength, its threat, and frankly I don't miss it.

Instead we discuss strengths and goals.  We conference on where the child wants to go with their learning and then hatch up a plan.  I don't talk about their weaknesses but rather what they still need to focus on, where they need to go, and then the students set their goals.  I don't.  Because it is not my goal to own.  I am there to participate in the conversation, to hopefully ask the right questions, but I am not there to make the final decision of which path they need to travel.  I am not there to talk as much as I am there to listen.  

So as I get ready to write the year end report card that I have to write, I am also getting ready to have the conversations with my kids.  I am ready to ask them if 5th grade was what they hoped it would be, if they feel they have learned as much as they wanted to, if they feel ready for the next year.  I even ask them if they are smart.  Why?  Because their answers reveal more about their coming learning journey than a grade ever could.  Because to a kid being "smart" is something an adult tells you whether you are or not, and that ties directly to self-confidence and how they will tackle challenges.  And when the last kid leaves on the last day of school I take all of their answers with me, wanting to become a better teacher for the next group.  Wanting to serve the next set of kids even more, help them take control of their learning as much as a 5th grader can, help them set goals and then attain them.  I want them to come in as learners and stay that way.  Not because I threatened them into it, but because they took ownership.  No F's in this room, there simply isn't the need for them

Sunday, May 27, 2012

We Don't Own Their Learning

We talk about summers as if they are our enemy, something to be combatted with reading lists, report card comments urging more practice and for some even packets that need to be filled in. We battle the summer slide with pep talks, with promises of learning to come and inspirational speeches. We battle it with threats of how much they will lose, how much harder the next year will be, how much they will have to catch up. But did it ever occur to us that we don't own the learning? That just because school is out, learning doesn't stop? Sure, it looks vastly different. No desks, no bells, no schedule. No dictated curriculum, no things to hand in, no feedback to be given or processed. Just learning, in it's pure, childlike wonder stage.

Now I know that not all children will get amazing learning opportunities in the summer. Not everyone gets to go to science camp, have a tutor or even parents that are around in the summer. I didn't go to any programs, camps, or staged learning envirnments; I played all summer long. I went to the creek and looked for frogs, I climbed trees and got stuck. Sometimes read a book. Some kids don't even get that. Some kids get less learning opportunies than that even. And yet, perhaps, they are still learning too.

So, yes we can worry about our children when they leave our classrooms, but we should not pretend that learning stops. Instead we should show them what learning looks like outside of school, in case they have forgotten. Instead we should tell them what we look forward to doing, how we will be learning. I plan on reflecting, refining, reading, and exploring with Thea as much as this crazy pregnancy will let me. I will be learning away from school, away from classrooms, away from anything structured but I will still be learning and so will my students. I don't own their learning, they do.

Give Me More Data - When Students Are Just Numbers

All night my mind has been spinning after watching this video posted first by Alfie Kohn and then discussed by Larry Ferlazzo.  You see, my district just started using MAP testing this year so the conversation shown makes me wonder if I will be that teacher having that conversation.  I wonder whether I will have to share a student's weakness with them to get them to score higher, achieve more, and I shudder at the thought.

MAP testing provides a nifty number, hopefully one above 200 and also above whatever number I have been told the student should score above.  And that to me is once again part of the problem; it is a number.  An arbitrary number at best that changes when a student has a bad day, doesn't concentrate or simply does not take this formal assessment seriously.  This is evident in the video when the teacher asks the students what they think happened since their score went down.  But even more so, that number is just a number, sure it breaks down into percentiles so I can compare my students locally and nationally.  And yes, it breaks down into strands, but what in the world does that all mean?  What does that number tell me that i can bring back into the classroom and teach those kids better?

Unfortunately having moved to MAP testing means I am no longer expected to assess my students face-to-face who score above a certain Rigby level, the MAP testing does the job for me, so no sub time is given to do so.  And yet, those assessment conversations are the conversations we need to have.  Those conversations are what should be shaping my teaching because I can weed out whether a student is simply having a bad day, whether there is confusion in the directions, or whether it is a true assessment that can be used to set goas.  Apparently, though, a computer can do this better than I can.  The computer is more efficient than me and apparently more trustworthy in its assessment.  And yet I squeeze in the face-to-face assessments when I can, sub or not sub, because I need to hear my students read, I need to hear them discuss questions, I need to watch them problem solve in math.  If I don't see those things, I am not able to teach them well.

So I still meet with my students; not to discuss their weaknesses as is favored in the video but rather highlight what they are secure in and where they are developing.  Language matters.  I don't sugarcoat the truth but I do choose my words carefully.  I use the data as yet another piece of data but wonder why we are so data-obsessed in the first place?  Why don't we just use the data we have already in a better way?  Why the need for more numbers to crunch, more numbers to graph?  Is that all students should be reduced to; numbers?  I don't know what MAP testing will do to my teaching next year, I will have to withhold my judgment, but after watching the video, I am scared.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

"Why Do You Only See the Bad, Mrs. Ripp?"

"Why do you always notice me when I am bad, Mrs. Ripp?..."

I stand there, stopped in my tracks.  Is that what I do?  Only notice this child when they have done something I didn't want, when they have done something "bad?"  Do I ever praise them for when they are on task, not poking their neighbor, or just simply working really well?  I think I do, at least I hope I do and yet, this child is on my radar more frequently than others.  The level of distraction is just so high and the level of interference with others a constant.  Do I ever just say, "Nice work..." or just bite my tongue altogether?  I am not sure.

Perceived negative behavior zeroes us in wherever we are.  The people that speak the loudest.  The child that moves the most.  The student that just cannot get to work because they just have to do that one more annoying thing that you swear they know annoys you the very most out of all annoying things.  So if we let it, soon, that behavior is all we ever see.  We only see them moving when they shouldn't, we only see them messing about, we only see them breaking all of the unwritten rules we have worked so hard to establish.  We only see the bad.

Why not give them a break?  Why not let them move about if that is what they need?  Why not smile or even just hold our words and let them shine for a little bit?  Fill them up rather than tear them apart?  Focus our energies elsewhere?  Just for a moment at least.  They know they are moving, they know they are poking, they know they are not working, and yet, let them figure it out.  Let them feel that we don't just see the bad, we see the whole, and that whole is good enough.

image from icanread


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

What Is Innovation Day and Why Should You Care?

On May 7th, I was lucky enough to witness almost seventy 5th grade students take full control of their learning, their time, their outcomes, and their work ethic.  How you may ask?  By having them all partake in Innovation Day, my second annual one.  For those who do not know Innovation Day is the school version of FedEx Day (although they want to rename it); a day where students get to choose what they want to learn about as long as they create something to deliver.  These creations are varied as can be seen by the different pictures in our video, but the one thing they all have in common is passion.

You see Innovation Day is all about passionate self-directed learning.  I do not dictate what the students have to do or what topic they study.  I do not give them output restrictions.  I do not grade it.  I do not guide them.  What I do though is help them find a way to create, I guide them through discussion and preparation before the day and then on the day I step aside, fully confident that they can indeed achieve without me.  And that is truly what is hardest about Innovation day; getting out of the way.  not offering your help, not showing students how to do something or research something, but trusting their abilities and talents to navigate through every obstacle.  Of course, I am there in the room with them, but I mainly film their progress and then stay in my own corner.  In fact, most students are so focused on what they are trying to create that they have little time or desire to speak to me.

So why should you take the Innovation day challenge, because it is a challenge indeed!  You should take it because the trust you hand over to your students is palpable.  Because students realize that they can direct their own learning.  Because students get excited about learning and see that many things can be accomplished at school.  Because students get to show off their interests and their skills in new ways.  Because this may just inspire you to do this more often, perhaps as a genius hour?  Because this allows students to prove to you that they can manage their own time, that they can get things done within a deadline, that they do have a great work ethic; all things we tend to use homework for.  Because my students voted Innovation Day their second most favorite thing of the whol e year and that says a lot.

So how do you get started?  Well, here is my planning sheet  I have students fill out a couple weeks prior.  Here is the first post I ever wrote about it.  Here is the post I wrote after my first one where I was totally blown away.  Here are Josh Stumpenhorsts' resources that I have used.  And finally here are two videos to show you the results.  One is of the day, the other is created on Innovation Day by Jacob who decided to do stop motion and by golly figured it out on his own.  And that truly is what it is all about.  So this year or next take the Innovation day challenge; give your students a whole day to direct their own learning and let them astound you.  You will not be disappointed.

Monday, May 21, 2012

What Do You Do in the Last Few Weeks of School?

Some teachers start a countdown, others do a lot of reading.  We instead have quite the to-do list to get through before my fabulous 5th graders get to graduate.  So beyond the culminating projects we have going on, here are some things that are keeping us busy:

  • Writing thank you letters.  This often overlooked skill is something I put a lot of value in so every year we take the time to thank all of the teachers and people that have helped us have a successful year.  I love slipping these into people's mailboxes.
  • Write Dear Future Mrs. Ripp's Students letters.  Every year I have my class that is leaving write letters to incoming students.  This is way for them to give them top insider information, get them excited and I get to peek at what meant a lot to them in the year.  I love handing these to my new students and seeing what they gain from them.
  • The Top 10.  We brainstorm all of the great things we have loved doing through the year and fill a white board with all of them.  Students then vote for the top 10 things of the classroom and a committee makes a huge poster for me to put on display for the new year.  Again, this is a sneaky way for me to see what really stuck out to students and incoming students cannot wait to figure out what the different things are.
  • Clean the library and review the books.  Not only do students help me get all the books back in the baskets they also get to rate all of the books.  If they would not read a book they place it on the carpet and other students can rescue it.  However, if no one comes to its rescue that books is given a new home.  
  • How to Flourish in 5th Grade videos.  My students have been busy writing scripts, rehearsing them, filming and soon editing videos for the incoming students on a variety of topics ranging from internet safety to how to transition to math (we switch classes).  I love seeing what the students wish they had known and also having them use some amazing Adobe software to edit their videos.
  • Give me your favorite memory... Another committee project where every student has to add their favorite memory to a video.  Again students are in charge of making this and I show it in the last days.
  • My favorite thing about...Every student has to a favorite thing about 3 other students on video.  We then edit it together to make a montage of all the things we have loved about each other.  This is always very secretive and students don't know who has them.
  • Look at our time capsules.  At the beginning of the year we do a time capsule with our favorite things at the moment and we also see how tall we are.  At the end we remeasure and laugh about how much we have changed or not.
  • Give me your feedback.  Students do a survey rating all of our classes, ranking their favorite assignments and their least favorite.  They also give me advice and constructive criticism on what I should change.
So there are just some of the things we have to do.  Like I've said there is a lot going on in 5th grade and every day counts.  I used to have students write letters to their new teachers as well but it doesn't work so well with the transition to middle school, however in other grades it probably would.


Sunday, May 20, 2012

A Student Gives Up And I Get Even

His head was down, hoodie pulled over his eyes.  The frustration radiating out of him, the dry erase board lay there untouched, unwritten, and I thought to myself, "again?  Seriously..."  And the irritation in me kept growing.  This kid who obviously didn't get what I was teaching had just given up, how dare he.  So I coaxed, I goaded, I even raised my voice a little trying to let him know that the choices he was making was not going to help him learn anything.  That I needed to be the center of his universe for him to understand it.  That we were not going down this road again today.

In my mind I knew I was going to have "the talk" with him once class was done.  I was going to tell him how unacceptable his behavior was, how disrespectful, how I would be emailing mom and speaking to his homeroom teacher.  I was going to give it to him good too because all I could see when I was teaching was that head down, hoodie up and that just wasn't acceptable.

When class ended, he approached the table and I looked up and saw his look of sheer resignation, the, "Uh oh I am going to get it now and I don't care because I just don't get it"  attitude streaming from him.   So I said, "I noticed how tough math was for you today, how you had given up..." and I hesitated, noticed his downward glance.  "So I want  to thank you for continuing to try, for not thinking I was crazy in my explanations.  Please keep reaching out for help and I will try to get to you as soon as I can.  I know you can learn this, don't forget that."

Eyes up, shoulders back, and out he walked from my room.  Who knows what Monday will bring.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

This Is Why I Teach


Summer Reading Programs for Students

As many of the students continue to cherish their books this summer, I thought I would highlight a few summer reading programs which can give them free books or other incentives since they are already reading.
  • The public library always has a great summer reading program. We do get to have a presentation next week on what they have to offer, but otherwise check out their website for more information.  Often students can earn books or participate in book events throughout summer.
  • Barnes & Noble are offering up their summer reading program as well.  This program runs  between May 24th and September 6th and any child can sign up.  With a kick off event here in Madison on June 2nd, students can pick up their logs and then earn books throughout the summer.
  • Half Price books also offers a program from June 1st to July 31st.  This program called Feed Your Brain Summer Reading Program offers students a $5 gift card to use at Half Price Books if they read 300 pages.
  • Scholastic has a program they call the Summer Challenge.  Either educators or parents can register kids and then they can log their minutes of reading.  They can then enter to win prizes or do challenges on the Scholastic website.
  • Amazon runs a 4-for-3 program where you can purchase 4 books and get the lowest one for free.  While this isn't an incentive program it is nice way to get more books.
  • The blog, My Frugal Adventures,  also has a list of a variety of other reading incentive programs being offered if you are interested.
I hope this is helpful for this summer; happy reading!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Just Kids

We worked hard today and at the end we stood with 10 minutes of unscheduled time, 10 minutes of free, no work to get started, and everyone longingly looking at the sunlight.

So we ran outside, free for those last 10 minutes and as I watched them all unfold I remembered; they are just kids.

Just kids who although they look so big and so tall still have hearts that belong to their childhood.

Just kids with their fragile dreams.

Just kids who truly believe they can be anything they want to be, they just have to figure it out first.

Kids who will include everyone when no one is looking and pretend to be tough when they can.

Kids that want to please but do it their way and who still need a hug just once in a while.

Just kids who play it tough when asked about middle school but then come to you with their secret concerns.

Kids who draw hearts on their notebooks and bring you flowers just because they think you would like them.

Kids who although they may think they are adults, really are just kids.

I am so glad they are mine even if just for a couple more weeks.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Don't You Mentor Me! Will Teachers Ever Embrace the Role of a Coach?

This year I was asked to mentor a new teacher in our building and although I willingly accepted part of me trembled just a little bit with fear.  See being a mentor implies that you know what you are doing and since I keep changing what it is I am doing, I don't know if I fall into that category.  However, I also knew that I wouldn't be a mentor to a brand new impressionable teacher but rather to someone who actually has a year more teaching experience than I do.  So it wasn't a case of me spilling my infinite wisdom of how to thrive in your first year of teaching, but rather to communicate ideas and offer discussion opportunities to help us both.  So being a mentor has been a reflective practice, mostly because Mark has given me as much food for thought as I hope I have him.  At the same time though I know that I have not fully acted as a mentor because I am afraid to step on toes, not that he would mind, but I just don't feel right.  And I don't think I am alone.

So what is our problem with mentors or coaches in education?  Why do we like the idea of them as long as we are not the ones being mentored?  We tell our students to work together, to learn from others, and yet our defensive hairs stand up on our necks the minute someone mentions a coaching or mentoring opportunity involving us.  I happen to know that I have a lot to learn and yet the reaction even comes from me; what do you mean you are going to teach me something?  I am doing just fine on my own, thank you, take your concern to someone who really needs it.

Perhaps this is our achilles heel as a community; the inability to take advice or have a discussion on how to improve ourselves.  Sure we say we want to get better as teachers, but often that means on our own, not with someone coaching us.  We, of all professions, should be embracing the very nature of the coach or mentor, or whatever you want to call it.  We should celebrate when we actually have the opportunity to learn from others, with others, and yet most of us get defensive instead.  Are we just too competitive to take advice?  Or have we lost our sense of trust when it comes to others wanting to help us?  Do we really think that we are doing our very best teaching every day?  I, for one, do not, just look at yesterday's post, but still why I am not asking people to come in and discuss my teaching?  Why am I not the one out soliciting feedback from my local colleagues?  Why do I hide behind my classroom walls as much as anyone?

So how do we build the trust?  Where do we start as a mentor or as a coach or whatever other title may be bestowed upon us?  Can teachers ever learn to trust each other enough to know that we are are here to be be the best teachers we possibly can be?  I just don't know but I hope someone else does.

For a wonderful perspective on lessons learned from being a coach, please read John T. Spencer's post "10 Things I Learned From Coaching."

Monday, May 14, 2012

When We Admit Our Faults Or When Math Blows Up in Your Face

I admit it; math today was a mess.  I had done my preparation, I had created my lesson, I had everything ready and then in the middle of it; breakdown.  The kids were getting antsy, my explanation didn't work, and finally it dawned on me ; I was not making sense.  Mortification, terror, and just a little bit of embarresement.  You see, I hadn't taken the time to fully understand the concept being taught.  I had prepared, sure, but I hadn't figured it out on my own.  I had just follwoed the prompts of the books and copied the words thinking that I understood when in reality I didn't.  In fact, I wasn't even close.

So when students started asking questions, there I stood with a choice to make; do I admit my faults or do I pretend that I know what i am talking about.  I swallowed my pride and admitted it,"Sorry, but I have to figure this out first before I teach it to you."  The kids went quiet.  "I don't want to teach it to you because I will teach it wrong, so let's get back to it tomorrow when I have had some time."  Then the kids sighed in relief.  "Good Mrs. Ripp, because I was really confused..." and the energy immediately returned to the room.

After school today, I sought out a colleague and I asked them to walk me through it and explain it like they did to the students since the book just wasn't clicking for me.  And as he patiently explained it, I realized once again how our students must feel when something doesn't make sense.  I realized how important it is for us to figure our curriculum out before we teach it to students.  I realized how crucial it is for us to admit when we simply don't know. 

Sure my lesson tomorrow just a got a little more crowded, but in the end, it is worth it.  I didn't wing it, I didn't fake it, I presented it as a true learning moment in which the teacher didn't know, and then I figured out how I would learn it myself.  In the end, when I admitted my fault, I learned more, and that lesson is something worth passing on.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

We Are Only Human, Why Do We Forget That?

Being a blogger, a teacher, a person who exposes themselves to the world through their words and actions, our personalities sometimes get distorted.  We get boxed in, labeled, or categorized in some way, all so that others can get a better handle on who we are and what we stand for.

Strangers decide whether they like us or not on small acts, on assumptions that they create, on things we say, write, do and then spread that like or dislike to others, forever judging us based on perhaps one blog post, one idea of what we are, or some distorted image.  And sometimes others forget that we are humans too.  Parents send angry emails based on an assumption, anonymous commenters attack rather than discuss, and sometimes people you consider to be part of your support network drop you like you were yesterday's news.  And it hurts, and our blogging, or our teaching interferes with the emotions we bring home and into our homes.  Our personal relationships suffer because of what happens outside of us, outside of our own realm of control, and we wonder why we put ourselves out there?

This school year, I was a top 10 finalist in a contest for good teachers.  While I had nothing to do with my own nomination, I used it as a way to show that having a non-traditional classroom in a public school setting was indeed possible.  And yet, no matter how noble my intentions,  the contest proved to be detrimental to me as an educator and as a person.  I said yes to continue on in the contest because if I won, I could get $10,000 and use it for something at my school; a new gym floor, working computers, more books.  And that was something bigger than me.  I knew there would be backlash but the magnitude of it still astounded me.  People who I thought would understand, perhaps not support, but understand, berated and tore me to shreds.  Educators whom I admire in my PLN decided that they would no longer follow me or have conversations with me, teachers whom I admire thought I did it as a way to show off, to elevate myself above the rest.  And it hurt.  And it confounded.  And even though you try not to take it personal, you do, because it is.  And even though you try to pick up the pieces, they just never fit back together the same way.  The people are gone, the communication is gone, the care is gone.

So I learned my lesson, don't think you are anything special - perfect for a product of Janteloven - because others will disagree.  Others will tear you down.  How sad, how utterly contrary to what we stand for as educators, how eye opening.  And yet, I continue to congratulate others, to be excited about their success and I remind myself whenever I see someone within my realm of the world; whether global PLN or local community, that is being recognized that I should cheer for them.  That I should be happy whenever an educator is recognized for something good rather than some evil they have done.We are all just human, and words hurt more than we know, we should be each others biggest cheerleaders, there are enough people trying to tear us all down.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

So You Are Going to #EdCamp - How To Stay Involved & Stay You

Picture from my first EdCamp, I am all the way to the left 

The first ever Wisconsin EdCamp, #EdCampMKE,  is this coming Saturday which made me think back to when I was getting ready to attend my first EdCamp in Chicago last year.  To say I was nervous wouldn't quite cover it.  It was more of a, "Why did I sign up for this and I can't believe people will see me, what if they hate me..." kind of pukey feeling nervousness.  So I figured I am not alone, perhaps you are about to attend an EdCamp or even some other conference where you are meeting people from your PLN for the first time, perhaps you are an old pro at these events.  Either way, here is what I wish I had known before I went.
  1. Initiate.  My first EdCamp I sat at a table until my friend Katie found me.  I was so nervous to say hi to anyone, I would have gladly sat at that table all day, just slipping through the cracks.  But that is not what EdCamps are about; they are there for you to start a conversation, so do so right away.  Sit down at a table that is having a lively discussion or say hi to someone sitting by themselves.  We don't all look like our avatars so you never know who that person is and just how introvereted they may really be, me included.
  2. Engage and speak up.  Once you have made initial contact; speak up.  Add your voice to the conversation, again this is what make EdCamp so ingenious, it is all about communication and relationships.
  3. Propose.  I am passionate about limiting grades, homework and rewards in the classroom and no one had offered a session on it.  So up to the stage I went with my proposal.  The worst thing that could happen?  No one showing up, but instead it was a lively one hour discussion that brought many people to the table.  So if you have something you would love to discuss, propose a session or find someone to propose it with you.  This isn't about you lecturing a group of people; it is all about the discussion.
  4. Think Un-Tech.  I love technology!  But I don't want to discuss it all day, so please come to EdCamp with more than just tech-related ideas.  And while there is room for everything at EdCamp, there needs to be a balance.  We may all be geeking out over possible 1 to 1 initiatives but isn't education much more than just fancy tools?  
  5. Move on.  So you really want to discuss a particular topic but no one else does, or the session you thought was going to be incredibly exciting is just not?  Move on.  Do so quietly and respectfully, but do find something that interests you, otherwise why bother spending your Saturday afternoon there.
  6. Be Nice.  EdCamp isn't about snark or putting others down, it is about community and great debate.  So just like our moms taught us; play nice.  And that also goes for the backchannel that usually pops up.
  7. Be Courageous.  If you are passionate about something bring that to the session or better yet, lead your own.  I am not an expert on anything but I do have opinions so why not add them to the conversations.  Yes, people may disagree with you but you may learn something and so may they.
  8. Be Creative.  At the last EdCamp Chicago my friends Katie and Jason led a session on the shy/introverted educator and their place in educator.  What a fantastic creative topic that I was so sorry I missed.  Think of what you really want to discuss and take it further.  Why not start a discussion on how we can actually change education in our country starting in your classroom, or how to bring passion in to the classroom or some other topic that may seem a bit out of the ordinary.  While you may not come up with solutions, the conversations will probably still be worth it.
  9. Be Quiet.  Yes, I know I have said to speak up but also know when to listen.  I was amazed at some of the things and ideas coming from other people, as long as I stopped talking long enough to hear them.  So add you ideas and then listen to others.  It is the give and take that make EdCamp extraordinary.
  10. Drink water.  This very pregnant mama will be the one chugging water all day and you should do the same.  EdCamp, or any other conference, can be exhausting and you want to stay alert for the whole day.  
Fellow EdCamp Veterans, what did I miss?


Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Appreciate a Teacher - Win a Gift Card Thanks to Adobe

I know teacher appreciation week is in full swing in many places, and I am sure feeling the appreciation here at school.  So the great people of Adobe thought they would pass on some appreciation as well to you and your favorite teachers.  It is actually quite simple; for the chance to win a $25 iTunes gift card, followers must tag @AdobeStudents and write a wall post about their favorite teacher/mentor and why on the Adobe Student Facebook page .  Write a story, post a quote, share a video/picture/give a shout out.  You can even win a $50 gift card if you create something with Photoshop or Illustrator and post that.

SoO get appreciating and maybe some good karma will come your way as well.

Summer Is Not Here Yet - Tips To Stay Motivated and Energized

See that kid walking in; the one who smiles every day and then just kind of retracts into their own world.  yeah that child, well, it is not too late to make a connection.  In fact, now, as the end of the years nears is the perfect time to try again.  I know you are busy, I know summer looms large, but still, how about another try?

With less than 5 weeks to go, some are in summer mode, both teachers and students, and others continue to push on.  At the end of every day with my students I say, "There goes another day in 5th grade but boy we have a lot to do."  In our room there is a sense of urgency; a need for efficiency, hard work and a little bit of pressure because the learning just does not have time to wait.  Students are busy with larger end of the year projects and I work more as consultant than direct instructor.  Sure side conversations slip in but overall there is a sense of mission.    A sense of using the year to the fullest degree, of finishing with a bang rather than a fizzle.

So what can we do to keep ourselves motivated?

  • Reach out and speak to someone new.  We tend to retract during this time, feeling that our schedules are overpacked and there is so much to do but there is something about reaching out and making a new connection.  Whether it is with a student, a colleague, or a parent even, now is the time to continue to build relationships.  It provides spark and energy and new ideas, what else could you want in May.
  • Get heavily invested.  I am very invested in these end of the year projects and I am in new territory with all of them. Students are acting as teachers in one with an assessment piece even tied in by them.  Another lets us use Adobe Elements which I have never attempted, you get the drift.  Instead of resting and trying something safe, I continue to push it and it keeps me revitalized, which directly translates to the energy level of the classroom.
  • Now is the time for conversation.  Although my mind is fully in this year, knowing I have a maternity leave coming up, I want to make sure I set my sub up with the best options, so my students and I speak a lot about what works and what doesn't.  How would they tweak the classroom, how would they alter projects and so forth.  I, in turn, listen and take notes, changing as I go.
  • Trust them more.  I see some teachers pull in the reins and really try to control students more as the end of year nears.  And yes, energy levels are up across the board and yet, I give mine more leeway.  I trust them more to make the right decisions, to represent, and to push themselves.  They have grown so much over the year, now is the time to acknowledge that.
  • Crank the music.  And don't take yourself so seriously.  Yes, you may be frazzled with so much to do, we all are, but is it fair to give that to the students?  I try to laugh more, smile more, and dance more as the year comes to a close.  We al need the body breaks and you an get a lot of classroom cleaning done with a great 80's song blaring.
  • Stay with the kids.  And with that I mean, in your mind and in your heart.  I always have an awful time letting go of "my" kids even though I know they are ready, but it is something I pride myself on.  These kids know I am fully focused on them and on their academics.  They know that I want to hear their stories and I want to support them.  Even though our official year is almost over does not mean our relationship is.  So I continue to work on all of my relationships with them to ensure that they know that they belong, that they are accepted, and that room 310 will always be their home, no matter how old they get.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

No, You Didn't Make It, Such Is Life - Should We Shield Students from Disappointment?

I still remember my reaction after I hung up the phone.  Shock, disbelief, and then uncontrollable tears and anger.  How dare he tell me I didn't get the job?  How dare he tell me that I interviewed really well but someone else just beat me by a little bit? How dare he not give me what I deserved?  And then rational Pernille took over, I took a deep breath, and realized once again; such is life.  Disappointment, no matter how much we would rather live with it, is a constant in life.  We don't always get what we want even though we worked so hard for it.  We don't always get the job, the guy, the prize, whatever our heart and dedication has been set on.  We just don't always win and that realization is part of being an adult.

This past week I had to deal with being the cause of disappointment at my school.  I, along with a fellow teacher, run the annual talent show where students audition to hopefully make it into the show.  Not all students make it because of time constraints and we are faced with tough decisions of who gets to be in the show.  This may seem a surprise for those who read this blog; that I would have anything to do with sorting children, and yet, here is my exception.  This show is not mandatory.  Students choose to audition well knowing that they may not make it.  They rehearse, they create and then they give it their best shot, and just like in adult life, sometimes that shot just isn't good enough.  Sometimes the audition just goes poorly, sometimes they need more rehearsal, sometimes it comes down to logistics.  Whatever the cause for the cut, it is never easy to tell a child that they didn't make it.  And yet, such is life.

So how do we deal with disappointment in our children and our students?  As a parent, I know how much I want Thea to succeed in whatever she puts her mind too but at the same time I know there will be disappointment.  I know there will be times when I cannot understand why she didn't make it, why she didn't get it, why she didn't win, but at the same time I don't want her to feel she always should.  I want her to realize that it doesn't come down to life being unfair, but rather that we cannot get everything we put our minds and hearts to.  That it is okay to get upset but then you need to move on and do something constructive with your emotions.  That disappointment is inevitable and it is what we do afterwards and how we react to it that matters.

Some parents think the talent show should be stopped.  That it is not healthy for us to "do" this to children and I would agree with them if the students were forced to audition, but they are not.  In elementary school there is such a fear of disappointment and having our students fail.  We shield them from sadness and anything where they might not succeed, but at what cost?  We cannot shield them forever, we cannot control life and other people.  So why not help them through disappointing situations instead?  Why not have mini situations, such as a talent show, where we can help them process their feelings and give them tools they can use later in life as well.  Why not be role models rather than bubble creators?  Why not let them fail and then learn from that?  I would love your thoughts.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

How Do I Punish My Students? Umm, I Try Not To

Recently a comment on my post "If We Would Just Stop Talking, We Might Learn Something" has made me think quite a bit.  Short and simple, it asked, "Do you have your non-punishment strategies written down?  Could you please share it?"  And I went hmmm, non-punishment strategies sounds much more fancy than what I have.  The truth is, I don't have any strategies; I simply do not punish kids.  In fact, even the word punish is such a heavily loaded word that I cringe at the sound of it.  It brings to mind canning or  publicly embarrassing children, simply not my thing.  So instead I handle situations as they arise, mostly with common sense.  Let me explain by taking some every day situations in a classroom...
  • A student keeps blurting out.  Sense of humor works for me here most of the time and I tend to look at it through a positive lens; wow, that kid can't wait to share the answer because they are having so much fun!  Strategies used to curb or direct it has been to give them dry-erase boards to write down their answers and then flash them to me or have them tell it to a partner.  If the blurting is more like an epidemic I place a blank post-it on their desk and have them make a tally every time they blurt out.  This is used for self-awareness not as a way to reward or punish and I have seen it help kids realize the extent of their blurting who were otherwise unaware.
  • Homework is not handed in.  Even in a classroom where I try to stay homework-free, some students do not use their time as effectively as others and may have a page or two to do at the end of the day, mostly math.  So the first thing we speak about is time management; what could they be doing differently in class to curtail taking work home?  Then we also discuss taking responsibility for not having their work; if a child tells me in the morning that they did not do their homework and have a strategy for getting it done such as bringing it tomorrow or spending some time during recess, then I am fine with that plan.  The point to the conversation is; I don't want to be the one that has to come up with the plan or have to find out that they didn't do their work.  They need to come to me, take responsibility for it and then fix it.  Just like we do as adults.
  • And yet, the homework continues to not get done.  This does not happen a lot in my room because we just don't have the homework.  And yet it does happen once in a blue moon. Besides a conversation with the student where we discuss things they have tried to fix it, we often do a quick phone call home to discuss strategy with parents.  This is not a punishing phone call but instead a "heads-up" we need to give a little more support here both at school and from home because the work is disappearing.  Often I find the root of this to be disorganization rather than laziness, so my number one point is; ask what happened!
  • Students goof off and generally not paying attention.  This is a huge flashing sign to me that what I am doing is not engaging and that the kids need a break.  So unless I for some extreme reason cannot stop what I am doing, I do just that; stop and switch gears.  Whether it just entails giving them a body break or asking them how they would like to learn about this concept something needs to change.  I have also had them do partner share, journaling, or whatever pops into my head to make sure they stay engaged.  Sometimes a lesson is continued but in a different format, sometimes we scrap it for the day.  
  • Students are staring into space, reading a book or doing other work.  For anyone who has ever been absorbed in a great book, we know how hard it is to stop reading, so I always smile a little when I see a student reading under the table.  And yet, students do need to be doing whatever it is we are doing at the moment.  Often a quick tap on the shoulder or even just silence and waiting for them to join the rest of us works.  It is not a big deal, nor do I make it into one.  
Yes, I have had students throw chairs and tables in my room, yes I have had students hit each other, and yes, I have had to send students to the office because they needed a cool down moment.  And still, even during those more extreme situations, I always try to keep in mind that there is a cause to this behavior and it is my job to figure it out.  So I do not punish my students.  I do not take away their privileges to coerce them to behave.  I do not threaten, I do not dangle things in front of their nose.  Instead I start out the year by inviting them to create the rules of the classroom and then asking them to responsibility for it.  We help each other out, we steer each other as we do, and we take the time to talk.

So although I may claim to not have any strategies, the one I might have is to listen with not just my ear,s but also my eyes.  Listen to what their behavior tells me, listen to what they tell me, and then listen to my own reflection on how to create better situations.  And that's how I don't punish my students.


It's Time to Appreciate the Teacher

Next week marks a curious phenomena in America; Teacher Appreciation Week.  The one week where we are are supposed to sit back and bask in all of the adulation and admiration that the word appreciation entails.  And yet, I can't help but think, why the need for a holiday?  Shouldn't we be appreciating teachers all of the time?  And while many will simply say, "...But of course," think about how teachers have been portrayed as of late in the media and in general conversations.  Our every move is scrutinized, our student test scores are used as measures to assess us, we are told we are overpaid, and should consider ourselves lucky to even have a job.  Gulp.  Not much appreciation there.

And yet, when I turn to look at my classroom, I see the appreciation.  The kind gestures from parents who support all of the ideas we have.  The students who so eagerly jump into projects and just in general are unafraid to try something new.  Administration that gives us enough leeway to try something new, knowing that it will probably benefit our kids, and husbands that are willing to listen to every single inane idea I have and flesh out the meat from them.  Yes, I am appreciated.

So while the extra attention next week certainly will be appreciated, I don't know if it is even necessary.  I feel appreciated every single day by those kids that come into our room and hand over their hopes their fears, and dreams.  By those kids that entrust me with their secrets, with their inner most thoughts, and that even share some of them on our blog.  By those kids that believe in what we have built, in what we have yet to accomplish, and in what they can be, who have let me be a part of their journey.  Those kids appreciate me and they show it every day, perhaps it is time we have a student appreciation week?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

My Blurb in "Better Teaching"

I was pretty excited today when I got this in the mail!  Skip to the 3rd page and look for the article "Use Teacher-tested Advice on Technology"  Thanks Better Teaching and the Teacher Institute


What's A Student Blogging Challenge?

After publishing a list of ideas for student blogging challenges, I was asked to describe them in more detail, so here goes.

What Are They?
The concept is very simple; every week, usually on Friday I post a new challenge for my students to blog about.  This can be related to the academics in our classroom or thoughts on various education topics.  I use this challenge for feedback, for ideas, and for them to become more involved in our classroom. 

The students almost always have 9 days to finish the challenge; Friday to the following Sunday, so challenge postings do overlap active challenges. While this is considered homework or extra work, students are given opportunities to finish them in class and do not have to find the time at home if they do not want to.

What Is the Topic?
I try to keep the challenges short and to the point, such as, "Should education be fun?" and then wait for students to think and respond.  We discuss perimeters for the posts at the beginning of the year and the students know to put their best foot forward, i.e. check spelling, capitalization as well as formatting.

I never grade their posts, since I do not grade in general, but use their writing to assess their growth as writers and also to figure out goals for them and give them feedback.  Comments from me are sometimes private or public depending on the feedback given.  Students love to read each others posts and we often end up discussing the week's challenge in class because it made the students' think.  I also tweet out their posts and use the hashtag #comments4kids to get other classes to comment.

Students' Reaction
Students love the blogging challenges (mostly) and it keeps me on my toes as far as pushing their thinking.  Students also get a chance to offer ideas for blogging challenges which I often use, thus providing another way for them to take ownership of our blogging.

What Else?
Well, these are not the only things my students blog about but it is a main component.  They often take to our blogs to create new challenges for others, to share stories, or vacations.  They write to express themselves and they challenge me.  I love how they take forum of blogging and make it their own, creating those global connections that we all strive to make.

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