Archive for September, 2010


Posted: September 26, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: ,

So, I’ve been thinking about how to be the best person and teacher. I’ve been thinking about what I want for myself and my students and who to turn to for inspiration. So far, I’ve got three stories/tidbits that are going to serve as my guideposts for the year:

  1. “Excellence is transformative.” I read Ron Berger’s book, Ethic of Excellence, several summers ago at this point. The sentence is deceptively simple in my opinion. This is the experience I want for each of my students, hands down, no debating it. I want each of them to be transformed by the experience of producing something excellent–something that is recognized by their peers as excellent and for which they are justifiably proud. This is a tough one because I can’t pass these experiences out for free or for any amount of money. But, just the idea of it makes me break into a grin ear to ear and brings tears to my eyes (ok, that’s not hard to do, but still). What I can do is work to give each student the skills to be his or her best and the support and encourage that quest.
  2. “When he spoke with you, he saw the light in you. And then, he showed you that light in you and you could see it too.” A “weighty Friend” (which in Quaker-speak means respected Quaker in the community) said this about someone I do not know. Quakers believe there is inner light, or that of God, in everyone. And yet, who doesn’t have trouble seeing that light in him or herself? What a great gift to be able to see that in others and reflect it back to them? Sign me up for that super-power. This is of course what I must to do for my students–see their strengths and show those strengths to them.
  3. My other guidepost is actually two people, neither do I know well. I have no idea what either is like at home, with family, or  in spare time. What I do know is how much care he takes with all those in need at the Quaker meeting we both attend. I am sure he is not perfect, but I continue to be impressed with how much he extends himself toward others. I could and should learn from his example. She is a teacher who I know on Twitter. She is unfailingly positive and encouraging of others. She is not snarky or negative, always extending herself to others. I am always impressed with how happy, enthusiastic, and positive her tweets are. I have room for improvement here.

Now, I know that probably seemed kind of heavy. But, I am really not a humorless person; I promise. (Have you seen the purple hair in my picture?) My classroom is a lively place. We laugh a lot. And, with the help of my guideposts, we can be a fun place, and I can be my best self too.

So, I’ve been thinking about the great conversation I had with my class yesterday. It was the kind of conversation we don’t usually have until a lot later in the year. I’ve been thinking about why it went so well.

First let me tell you what my definition of “going well” is. In 5th grade I think a good conversation about a book means a number of thing:

  • Many people (everyone) participate.
  • Solid information from the story is shared.
  • People are not just summarizing, but collecting appropriate examples for the topic.
  • There is back and forth among students.
  • New ideas emerge.

That may sound like a lot for 5th graders, who incase you don’t recall, are mostly 10. But,I have found that is exactly what they are capable of: a lot.

So, here are some of the reasons I think this, our first real discussion about our first book of the year, went so well:

  • We were sitting in our circle arrangement (see my post about it here and here) and I was just part of the circle. Everyone was facing each other and conversation was naturally flowing.
  • I adjusted the plan of what to talk about when a student brought up an idea that clearly got many students’ attention. I told the students we could discuss this idea further once we finished a few housekeeping review items and that my goal was to learn and improve our ability to discuss what we read. I said that often it would not matter what in particular we discussed, so I was open to new topics.
  • I tried to keep things somewhat free-flowing and insist on some being-called-on-taking-turns.
  • At a few different times I said I needed to hear from anyone I hadn’t heard from soon. Students responded appropriately and raised hands ready to join in.
  • And, finally we had already had our “5E Day” (Identity Day-read about it here) project and started on the path to a really great class tone.

I am going to have to up my game if my students are going to be leaping into this kind of discussion in September.

I’m in.

So, I’ve been thinking about my class version of George Couros’ “Identity Day.” I heard him describe it at part of the Reform Symposium. (Catch the archived version here.)

Let me give a little background. I showed this video as a start to our conversation about ourselves. The video is a book trailer for Daniel Pink’s newest book Drive. The key thing for our discussion is that it asks the question: What is your sentence. This is what we used to begin.

After some discussion I gave some possible examples for myself and these directions:

On Friday we will each share a little something about ourselves. You should begin by coming up with your sentence. Remember the video we watched? What is your sentence right now? It doesn’t have to be your sentence for life, just your life at the moment.

On Friday each person will have his or her sentence on a sentence strip (I will give you a strip) and a small display on his or her desk. This display could be pictures, small items, a poster, books, whatever you want that helps us understand your sentence. I will share my sentence and make a small display as well.

Each of you will get a few minutes to share this special interest or with our class.

I can’t wait to hear about each of you!

Then, I waited.

To say that I was unprepared for the response does not even begin to describe the day. This was the last thing we did on a Friday, the second week of school. Not prime time. It was the only time I had what I thought was a long enough block of time.

Here are our sentences:

  • She likes to make all kinds of things.
  • She loves Paris, France.
  • You can call me crazy, because it’s true.
  • I have many bright ideas for our armed forces.
  • I like baseball, basketball and long multiplication.
  • Lax is my thing and I like to sing.
  • I love to swim.
  • She loves to be creative and likes to be herself.
  • I live and breathe tennis.
  • I enjoy doing puzzles with my brother.
  • I want to be in the Olympics, a lot.
  • (Name) is about soccer, math, and a laugh.
  • I like to compete in math and sports.
  • I like doing fun stuff.
  • (Name) likes to play soccer, cook and have fun. (a boy)
  • I like to make cool projects.
  • All day I think about soccer.

The sentences were interesting. They brought little displays to share.

I live and breathe tennis.

I like to make cool projects.

But what was the most amazing was how much attention, interest, and care they showed. Each person shared his or her interest and collection of items. Students asked questions of everyone. They were respectful of all interests and genuinely interested in what others were doing. There was no wiggling, giggling (except at jokes), eye rolling, sighing, or wandering. For a few students I had to cut off questions so that we wouldn’t run out of time. All told, it was easily 75+ minutes of just sharing. That doesn’t include the time we spent walking around looking at things up close before beginning.

I was blown away.

I want to be in the Olympics, a lot. have many bright ideas for our armed forces.

Here are a few of the things I heard:

  • Q: Do you feel you have pushed the boundary of crazy? (totally serious question)
  • A: I haven’t yet, but I feel I may soon. (also serious)
  • Q: What is the hardest thing you ever made (cooking)?
  • A: That would have to be when I tried putting chocolate then cheese over bacon.
  • Q: You must have a lot of patience (to student talking about 1,000 piece puzzles)
  • A: My mom can’t take it. If she doesn’t get a piece in like a minute, she quits. My brother and I, we have a lot of strategies.
  • I love to laugh, I do it a lot. They say I’ll live longer, so that’s a good thing.
  • I know that’s really hard because I tried it and kept falling into
    walls and stuff.
  • I personally love Snoopy, but that’s just me.
  • I got into it when I was really little and I’ve liked it ever since.

I cannot adequately express what a great afternoon this was. Not only was it a fantastic event, I think it will set a tone for the rest of the year.

So, I’ve been thinking about how my new furniture is working out. One of my big plans for this year was to make my room more flexible in terms of seating arrangements. I wrote about it here.

Well, let me give you the update you’ve been waiting for.

The good:

  • I love having our regular desks in a circle where I am just another person in the ring. I think it sends a good message that we are all in this together when we are discussing.
  • The Ikea tables are light and easy to move across the carpet.
  • There are now many places to work in the room and many ways to “find a spot” that don’t all involve huddling in groups near the cubbies.
  • When the tables are lined up close to the front, no one is more than 10 feet from the board for those direct instruction times.
  • Students are able to choose a type of work place that suits them.
  • When students do choose another work place, it is actually conducive to working.

The bad:

  • There are times when I want to be able to go back and forth in classroom design within a short block of time.
  • It’s pretty tight when we’re all up front. The positioning of the table legs means that it’s hard to fit 2 students per side.
  • Why didn’t I think of this a bunch of years ago?

The ugly (still needs work):

  • I think I need some kind of in between set-up where we are mostly in discussion mode, but yet the board is nearby and accessible for notes and ideas.
  • The chairs, the chairs. They don’t move as easily and we have had a few traffic jams.
  • I am still working on planning the day with seating in mind.

So, overall I’m still really excited about the possibilities of this new set-up. It’s definitely a step, or a table, in the right direction. (I’ll add a picture once my camera is charged.)

So, I’ve been thinking about getting ready for school. We had our first half day on Wednesday, but with the holiday on Thursday, we didn’t have a real, full day until Friday. (I am happy to report no one bailed after that first 1/2 day.)

I’ve done the standard getting ready stuff: arranged the room, labeled the workbooks, put up bulletin boards, built the new moveable tables, put meetings into the calendar, hired a new babysitter for my personal kids, repainted my toenails, touched up the purple in the hair, etc. But, sometimes in all the rush to work my way down the “to do” list, it’s easy to forget the internal getting ready I need to do.

For example, I need to spend some time thinking about developing a class climate with my students that is conducive to all learners. I need to switch back to “beginning of the year me,” the teacher who doesn’t talk quite as fast, remembers 5th graders aren’t ready for deadpan jokes right away, and puts herself back in that place where she is new and uncertain. I need to remember to get not just the paper and pencils out of the closet, but also my extra patience, my ability to give another example, and another, my enthusiasm for all the books we read, my ridiculous comparisons that actually help make a point, and crazy excuses to move around the room. It’s all part of the unpacking.

I’m not the only one who needs to pack more than pencils. My students do too, and it’s my job to help them think about that.

One of the ways I have talked about this other getting ready process, beyond the stuff, is to tell my students a story about a trip I took with a friend and colleague. We won an award from our school to help us fund a trip to Spain one summer. Now, neither of us knows Spanish nor teaches anything on the topic of Spain. Our award was for very broadly defined professional development–anything that would make us better versions of ourselves would surely make us better teachers. So, our proposal was for a walking trip in Spain along the Camino de Santiago. We proposed this idea as an opportunity for us to try out the ideal of “Courage for the deed, Grace for the doing.” Our idea was that for us truly to challenge our ability to have courage and grace, we should put ourselves in a challenging position, which for teachers means not school. Little did we know.

To make a long story short, we arrived in Spain, but our luggage did not. In fact it never arrived. We went on our walk (which began in cold rain) with very little stuff. What did of course arrive were all of our personal traits–our potential for courage and grace, as well as our insecurities. So, I tell my students about this trip, show pictures, admit to being nervous, grumpy, and more. I tell them that what mattered was not getting to the end, but how we got there. And, I tell them what a fantastic trip it was.

(This is what I looked like in every picture since I wore that same thing every day.)

We then talk about packing our “backpacks” for the year of 5th grade with our positive qualities. Since it’s 5th grade we actually make paper cutouts and put words in them. To be fair, we also add one trait that’s not so good–a danger card.

I have used this story and discussion starter for a few years. It works for me, and it works for my class. One of the best things about it is that my students see me admitting to being all too human. It makes it a lot easier to have a frank conversation about strengths and weaknesses when I just put a whole bunch out there for everyone to see. I’m totally fine making mistakes and being honest about my faults in class, and if it helps my students I’ll keep right on being imperfect.

I guess I’ll head to school on Monday and make some more mistakes, for the kids, of course.

Having an Impact

Posted: September 9, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: ,

So, I’ve been thinking about how to effect change beyond my classroom. I can’t say that I’ve found any answers. I’m pretty sure I’ve bothered some folks and very sure that more people have heard about a few things I’m working on than care about said things.

But today (ok, I didn’t finish this right away, it was a few days ago now), I was talking with another teacher about some schedule issues. Then somehow it turned to technology and how this teacher is now thinking that she wants to get into some rooms and see teachers using some tools with students. She wants to enter the fray. Yippppeeee!

Well, I may be busy with other things at the moment, but I am not an idiot. This was the time to keep the conversation going. I agree that this teacher is in a tight spot in terms of how to integrate technology into her subject. But she had heard about storybird and wanted to know more. So, I told her a little more about it, mentioned toondoo, and mixbook. Sometimes I just talked about what some of the tools out there would allow students to do rather than the names of the exact sites, etc. It seemed like the details to remember were not going to be tools, but capabilities.

Well, I am happy to report that we came up with a way that we can work together on a project with my students that will enhance and integrate our classes. It has great possibilities and will use technology to support the learning in several content areas. And, the products could be pretty cool too. I’ll post about the details later.

What was so exciting about the conversation was that we figured out a way for this teacher to wade into the pool with a partner, me, who is excited about the project and able to be a bit of a help. And this idea isn’t just a way for this other teacher to satisfy a perceived push to use appropriate technology. It will make what I was doing in my room better; it connects what the students are doing during the day, and it provides opportunities to collaborate, connect, and share.

We may have hit the trifecta.