Archive for October, 2011

The Friend speaks my mind

Posted: October 30, 2011 in Uncategorized
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So, I’ve been thinking about 2 things a Friend said at Meeting for Worship last week. Actually, it was after the official rise of meeting when the community was gathered for a celebration and saying farewell to a weighty Friend (not necessarily a heavy friend, just someone whose opinion is respected and whose ideas carry weight in the community) who is moving out of the area. The Friend who spoke shared these two quotations (I have linked to where I found the sources):

1. a Northwest Native American story that is an answer to the question of what to do when one is lost:

Here is the answer the elder gives:
Stand still. The trees ahead
and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here.
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers.
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it you may come back again.
saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you.
You art surely lost. Stand still.
The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

According to this site, Bert Hoff’s, it was translated by David Wagoner.

2. a quotation from Victor Hugo, “Be like the bird that, passing on her flight awhile on boughs too slight, feels them give way beneath her, and yet sings, knowing that she hath wings.” (source)

Both are thought-provoking and were such relevant ideas for the situation. And, both are so applicable to life in the classroom. These two ideas–of not really being lost if we can just alter our perspective and of being able to sing as the branch gives way beneath us–sum up exactly what I want for my students.

As the year progresses, I want them to feel lost in something new, to feel overwhelmed by an idea for in doing so they will learn (with guidance) to find reorient themselves. We will have to practice being lost lots of time so that when that feeling of being lost comes over them, their reaction can be to stand still and look around with the understanding they can be found.

Similarly, as my students find themselves on shaky ground (be it in math, social studies, language arts, or a playground drama) I want them to learn not to fall to the ground and cling to an old idea or habit, but rather to sing out confident in their wings. Perhaps that means asking for help, perhaps that means trying again without getting upset, or maybe it just means taking a deep and trusting oneself to have those wings.

I have much more thinking to do on these two ideas. This Friend has spoken his mind and in doing so has spoken mine. I just didn’t know it until now.

Eames TimelineSo, I’ve been thinking about social studies and history. I am the co-chair of the PreK-12 social studies/history department at my school. One of the issues we are always coming up against is the fact that history is not getting any shorter, in fact it’s getting longer every day. We can’t teach it all in 4 years of high school, we can’t teach it all even if we add in 3 years of middle school. And, expecting that content that gets taught in lower school will not need to be taught again at a more sophisticated level is a pretty high-risk move. So, that leaves us thinking about what to take out.

The careful reader will notice I did not talk about “covering” anything. If we are just interested in covering the material, and we are ok with going at break-neck speed, we could cover a lot. However, that gets us back into a high-risk situation–a high-risk that not a lot will get remembered. If that is the case, why spend the time at all? Well, as you might imagine as the department co-chair, I happen to think that history and social studies are important and worth doing well.

That brings us back to what to cut out, because seriously folks, there is no way to do it all. We need some depth not just breadth.

So, here are my questions. Feel free to answer some or all. (I could really use some comments here. Not only has it been a bunch of posts since I have had any responses other than spam, but I would love to get some ideas.)

  • How much US history is too much?
  • Are some time periods more equal than others?
  • How important is geographical distribution?
  • Can some topics/time periods be breezed through lecture style to leave more time for others to get in-depth treatment?
  • Is so, which ones?
  • Ancient history, how much time should it get?
  • Medieval history, an important and interesting time or understand the feudal system and move on?
  • How much time to spend on art, music, literature, and culture of the time?
Did I mention I would love some ideas?
(Super cool photo by Nat Tarbox used under creative commons license)

So, I’ve been thinking about peer editing. Honestly, there is no way that I can read and edit everything that my students write. And, just as honestly, there is no reason for me to do so. I get that I am the paid professional in the room, but that does not mean that I am the only person from whom students learn or even the only teacher in the room.

I have noticed that the group of students I have this year seems very interested in reading and sharing work as they write. Great. Let’s do more of that.

Being a good editor, peer or otherwise, doesn’t happen without practice or guidance. We’ve been working both angles. The other day we had worked on a web to pull apart a few particular sections of the story in The Island of the Blue Dolphins. We’ve been working on turning making inferences into a bit of a math problem (information in the story + background knowledge=inference). We had worked through several short passages in a guided format and students had another example to do independently at home. Then, they were to use that information to write a paragraph that answered the bigger question we were investigating.

This was the second question/go-round with this strategy. I had students work over their paragraphs in a couple of ways. After having written at home, I worked with one small group at a time to review, again, what would make both a good paragraph and a good answer to our question. We also talked about constructive criticism: what it is and what it is not. Students reread their writing and made some changes. Then, they switched papers and gave each other comments on post-it notes. Finally they made any changes they wanted before I got to read and assess their “best work”.

In class I was impressed with the seriousness with which the students commented and worked at editing their short paragraph. The effort was certainly there. But, what it would look like as a product? You just never know.

Last night I was reading over the work. Most of them made some real changes. This is no small feat for 5th graders, in October no less. I gave everyone comments as well, although I am not asking for another rewrite on this one. More than anything I was glad to see the openness and seriousness with which they approached the task.

So my final call on this one is that it was a good peer edit–the process was definitely positive. And, the products were not all that different from what I would have expected from a second draft after I edited, with the added bonus that students got to practice editing in addition to being edited. It’s a good thing.

So, I’ve been thinking about how I spent my summer. More specifically, I have been thinking about what I did not do in terms of school.

Here’s what I did do officially:

  • I participated in 2 FULL days of training for our new Mac laptops.
  • 1 full and 1 partial day of PD/training about a new model for language arts and other strategies.
  • Attended the ISTE conference — 3 -4 days of stuffing info and ideas into my head, meeting other educators, tweeting, walking, and then doing it again. (I did get my picture taken with Moby the robot from BrainPop!)
All of this was before July even rolled around. At that point, I have to say my brain was full. I set down my bag and went about being a mom to my personal kids. I did talk to colleagues about plans we had for the new school year and participate in a few Twitter chats. But, until it got to be later in August, that bag that came back from school and ISTE just sat in the corner.
And, I think that’s ok. It’s not like I shut off my brain. There are very few situations in which that is a good idea. That goes double for if you are at home with your elementary school aged kids. I read a lot of young adult literature that I wanted to catch up on. I had gotten really behind on what my students might be reading. I didn’t write on this blog. I really thought I wanted to and thought I was looking forward to writing about some things that got passed over at the end of the year. But, it turned out I didn’t.
I keep having to remind myself that it’s ok. I didn’t come back to school unprepared. In fact I came back refreshed and excited about the new year. I learned all sorts of things, spent a lot of time swimming with my kids, and my bag was waiting for me when I was ready to pick it up again.

So, I’ve been thinking about the strategies that I learned in my 2 days of reading PD at the end of the school year last year. One of the strategies that our facilitator shared with us was having students take mind map type notes as they read in social studies. Although our facilitator talked about putting the finished sheets up in the room as the endpoint, I have plans beyond that.

We had some reading about archaeology to do. I began by putting students in groups of 4 or 5. Each group had a table, big paper, markers, a book per person. They had a short reading assignment and I said they would be reading and drawing/writing notes. I modeled this first, talking through both my thinking about the reading and my drawing/writing.

Then student gave it a try. First they read and made their notes. Then they shared in their groups, circled common ideas and made a center box with repeated ideas and key ideas. Finally each group shared their central ideas with the class.

Looking at the list we generated, I noticed that many of them had been sidetracked by the fun tidbits in the reading at the expense of the bigger ideas. Of the list on the board only about half were what one would label as important ideas. So, I directed everyone to the helpful headings that were also on the pages we had read. I wrote those on the board next to the list of ideas. I said that I thought that if the headings were the big topics then our facts should help us understand those ideas. As a class, we looked at the list on the board and the list of headings and chose the facts that were most important.

This was a really useful activity.

Not only was it a different strategy for generating notes, but also it showed so clearly how it was easy to be distracted by the “sparkly” tidbits in the passage, just like early archaeologists who were looking more for treasure than information. What a happy connection there, no? I really pushed this connection and we talked about how that fun fact is there to grab your attention, but shouldn’t distract you from the big ideas, rather it should help us remember.

I asked the students what they thought of the strategy, since it was not one I had used before. Many people were very positive about it. They felt it took the pressure off having to summarize in words all the time. And, I would say that most folks were on task and putting forth good effort. Obviously there is room for improvement, but it was a first for them too. Certainly something to do again.

As I said at the beginning, I have bigger plans for the papers than bulletin board decoration, although they will be useful there. Once we get the hang of it more, I think the plan will be to use this as a first step to generating a set of class notes on reading. And, since we are using Edmodo I can add a document to the library and everyone can use it.

I think it’s all going to come together nicely.

BrainTree Challenge

Posted: October 11, 2011 in Uncategorized
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So, I’ve been thinking about how to get more pizzazz in math. We use the University of Chicago Everyday Mathematics program and it has some good problem solving activities in it. However, some of them lead to too much silliness and I skip them. A few days ago I used one of them as an extension activity when some students had finished their work. It was a very popular lesson and it reminded me how much the kids like some of those goofy activities and that there is plenty of math involved.

Then a few nights later I found myself creating just such an activity. I had planned for the Unit test, however, when we finished our review I surveyed the class and there are a handful of students who said they were not ready. That meant I needed a bunch of options for class on Friday. We had a few things to finish in the math journals, but after that there was a list of options:

  • Work on math box pages (these are mixed review/preview pages after each lesson which we don’t always finish)
  • Problem solving/estimation worksheets (I know hardly exciting sounding, but good problems and some kids chose it)
  • Logic and other problems solving type questions in a packet
  • More test review with me
  • BrainTree Challenge (group activity, how many miles or kilometers is it from our school to the BrainTree School in Uganda, how much would it cost to get there, and what is the cost per mile/kilometer)

I thought that everyone but the test review crowd would go for the BrainTree Challenge. But, not so. There were a number of kids who wanted to work on more straightforward math problems than the more free-ranging BrainTree Challenge. However, those who did work on it loved it.

I had broken down the trip into legs with guiding questions. Students could search and use the web, but could not just google “how far is it from x to y”. They had their choice of modes of travel. Some went for cheap and direct. They even decided to use a bicycle to get to the airport. Another group wanted luxury. They were on the Amtrak Acela train and then took a transatlantic cruise on Cunard. There was definitely plenty of time not exactly spent doing calculations, but the practice with effective searching and working together was an added bonus.

There is nothing like overhearing students tell each other how much fun something is when it’s also a good learning experience. A great end to the week and a good reminder to bring some sparkle to math.

Blogging in the Hallway, Update

Posted: October 10, 2011 in Uncategorized
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So, I’ve been thinking about our paper blogging. We are starting with this format to develop some good habits before we head out into the blogosphere. At the moment the students’ blogs are hanging in the hallway outside our classroom. We have a desk out there with supplies for commenting (post-its and pens) and a poster with guidelines.

On Thursday we had an event in the morning that meant parents were in the classroom. It also gave the students a chance to show off their blogs. Some of them got questions about proof reading and spell checking. I have not been correcting every error, which I have told the students. But, it’s always more effective to have someone else mention the same thing. It was also a motivator for writing because at that point, not everyone had finished a post.

On Friday, we were going to do some work on Island of the Blue Dolphins. However, there was serious lobbying for blogging, so we did some blogging. Everyone has now posted at least once. Some have posted several times.

I had sent out 2 emails to the lower school faculty to come by either alone or with their students to read and comment. Then Friday afternoon one of the 4th grade sections came with their teacher to read and comment. I came back from lunch to see an entire class of kids reading and commenting on post-its. They were silent, and 4th graders are not generally known for their quietness. As I walked by several kids turned and said things like, these are so good, and these are so creative. Big smiles, wide eyes.

Victory! When  students got back they were super excited to have comments from people other than their direct classmates. I am betting some of the kids will write posts over the weekend, even though I did not assign anything. My plan is to alter this blogging license made by Katy Gartside to fit our situation a little better. I would guess that a few students will be up and running before Halloween.

I’m looking forward to the next posts.