Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Great Marble Machine Race

You’ve heard it before, there is no box in my classroom – actually, my teammates have quite a great time reminding me that I have no clue there is a box that I’m “supposed” to fit in!  I’m not someone who thinks inside boxes and boundaries (which made my own learning experience horrendously unbearable), but I do respect people who work better within defined parameters.  It’s not that I want to cause panic among “newbies” to my room (well, um, okay, there IS a certain amount of pleasure I get from pushing people to think).   I want to provide a space that is comfortable for ALL learners and if that means it needs to look and feel different, then it will be.  I suppose pillows on the floor around a coffee table doesn’t constitute as a learning space for some!

We recently planned to begin our simple machines unit.  In the past I’ve used a “canned” program (do this “experiment”, with an already determined/expected outcome, first, followed by the second unrelated experiment, wait until the end to barely relate concepts, etc....), but over the past few years I’ve slowly moved into inquiry/project based units.  The biggest challenge I’ve discovered isn’t about budget cuts, or lack of support or supplies, but it’s been kids having difficulty thinking.  I know that sounds crazy, but the way education is turning, kids are used to “just doing worksheets” and not having to think, wonder, or connect learning.  That’s really my biggest goal in my room – kids HAVE TO think and take risks!   It’s not easy, it takes time, it takes coaxing and lots of encouraging.  By 9 they already believe that they’re supposed to give me the “right” answer and wait for a number or an obnoxiously large C placed prominently on their paper, be done with the task and move on to the next – factory style.  Now, they see learning as continuous and connected – we don’t do one thing without it somehow connecting to past or future learning which doesn’t end with a’s seamless, it’s related.

I started planning from the end – where I wanted them to get to and worked backward to the beginning of the plan.  Once I wrote the project “must dos” I started my “teasers” – I planted pictures on our Twitter feed asking the kids what they thought we were up to next.....first a picture of the pegboard....then of the pegs, no that point, many of my kids started guessing and as they guessed I sent them a bonus picture clue of marbles encouraging them to keep thinking or asking questions for them to think about – no answers, no further hints.  They were SO excited that by the time I revealed the project I thought they’d come unglued!  By this point, they were so hooked that the next day that started research, several kids came in armed with things they had printed out or written down that they had already learned at home (have I mentioned how I feel about teacher assigned homework versus a genuine intrinsic motivation to learn outside of the classroom???)!

At the end of the unit I need the kids to understand friction, force and motion, identify simple machines and explain how each works.  The road we choose to get there is where I have the power to make a difference.  This year’s task appeared simple – “The Great Marble Machine Race” (insert collective gasp – it was amazing!) .... and then I introduced the “monkey wrenches”:  the race is based on the slowest machine, your machine must include a minimum of three machines, each team will be provided a peg board (2x4), 16 pegs, and each team member will receive one marble.  Mouths dropped, eyebrows furrowed, sighs were heard.......and magic.... the kids started turning to their shoulder buddies whispering ideas, asking questions.   

Once they started working in their teams, they whole heartedly jumped into it.  Kids scrambled to pull up links to begin to generate ideas for the best machine they could.  They are required to keep notes, draw diagrams, and create & continuously redesign their prototypes based on what they have learned.  They quickly began their research and watched what others were up to – which so many would deem as “cheating”......but me? I think of it as being vested, in a genuine desire to improve themselves, as being resourceful - they’re using each other as teachers (with me fulfilling my role as “co-pilot” on this learning trip), and they’re being driven and pushed by their peers.

As they first worked to understand friction and why it was important to their machines, I heard kids talking about using carpet on their run:  “maybe I can ask my dad and use a piece from our basement” or deciding to use something similar to carpet, “but not that scratchy with a little less friction” and “ice would NOT be good because it would be water before we could use it”.  It was pretty amazing to witness – in less than an hour these kids had a pretty strong understanding of friction, some a little more than others, but all without my help - simply relying on themselves, questioning what was read, and apply & making  connections to what they knew in their own lives.

The hardest part of a classroom working on project based/inquiry learning is giving up “teacher control” and being “in charge”.  Many times I want so badly to jump in and guide the kids as to where they should look, but I have to let them grapple with ideas and question each other and ideas in order for them to learn and build confidence in themselves as thinkers.  It’s easy to jump in, it’s easy to spew out an answer, it’s easy to “fix it” for them.  I need to reassure myself that they have parameters, but the rest is up to them to grab hold of and run with.  As we regrouped after that first day of research, the kids asked if they could go off the sides of the board, if they could use tubes, if they could use toy cars, could they bring in carpet pieces......I simply smiled and gave no answer because they knew, they only needed me to encourage & support them.  Some even asked if they could keep researching at home and start gathering supplies......I’m getting good at just smiling.  They are the only ones that can hold themselves back.....but their ingenuity has already been sparked.

And by the way, if you find my box?  Please don’t bring it back – I love my world.

"If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid." – Albert Einstein

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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Once upon a time in a classroom far, far away.....

Have you ever reflected on what used to be and realize that so many things are still relevant, but you feel like you don’t have time or are under too much stress to take it on to dig it out and reflect? Nope, can’t relate – I’m always composed, never overwhelmed or buried in paper, and easily skip out of the building each day on the heels of the kids.   

We continually have conversations in my classroom about always doing your best no matter what, persevering through tough things, not comparing our learning to others, and learning from a mistake.  I think I have made a huge mistake in the past few years.  I used to read lots of research; it was intriguing, it was inspiring.  Since having had all the free time in the world, with raising three kids, the pressures of the new Common Core, and looming high stakes testing, well.....for several years I’ve fallen away from professional reading.  In the past few months I’m very happy to say that I’ve reconnected with some of my favorites. 

During a recent chat in my classroom an incredibly guarded child matter-of-factly said, “Well, you DO know there’s more than one way someone can be smart.  And, you CAN’T be grade smart”.  This innocent 8 year old made me realize that I have missed Howard Gardner.  The idea of multiple intelligences was one of those things that struck me the first time I read them years ago – it validated who I am and most importantly, who I was.  All of a sudden, it stripped away the labels, the odd glances, and negativity that was always focused on the way I learned best (I’m “art smart” and always “got it” so easily, so quickly when I could think in pictures....only acceptable all alone at home, on my own paper of course).  It was “fingernails on a chalkboard excruciating” for me to sit in a chair, in a row, book in hand, blank paper, graphite ready to scratch an answer in for what seemed to be eternity (can you guess....I’m “body smart” – please DO NOT confuse this with running, for me it has a WHOLE different meaning!). It was my struggle, no truthfully it was a battle, for every year of school after Kindergarten.  I’ve said before I was NOT the best student, as the story of my report card reminds me, throughout all of my years of school; believing that I was dumb, not doing “well” according to tests, being told I was doing things the “wrong” way.  I used to think my Aunt Joy was NUTS when she used to tell my mother that I was “the smartest of all the five of them”.  Unfortunately, Lewy Body dementia has stolen her voice, but I’d give anything to know what she saw in me that the teachers couldn’t.

I am VERY honest with my kids and share stories of when I was in school and the things I had to do to learn and how much trouble I used to get in because I wasn’t doing it “the right way”.  We have talked about how hard I tried but the teachers just weren’t happy with me and the way I thought.  I try and reflect on my classroom as much as I can to make it different for my kids.  Maybe I make myself crazy (may be easier for me since I’m halfway there!) by doing this and changing things for the continually changing needs of my kids, but it’s what I do. 

So, inspired by the introverted kiddo I dug out my Multiple Intelligence research, blew off the dust, and created a brand new kid friendly survey.  My kids were ecstatic, the excitement was palpable....I felt like we were getting ready for the Travers Race in Saratoga!  We talked about how the survey wasn’t “more is better” when choosing answers and how they may find that they are smart in many areas and some may surprise them.  And then, it was the moment!  The kids grabbed their survey, threw their heads down, pencils moved at break neck speed to complete the survey, they were chomping at the bit to tally their results and find out how smart they really were.  You would have thought it was Christmas morning when they finished – papers flapping in the air, calling out what kinds of smart they were searching for a common “smarty” they could relate to.  I heard things like:  “That’s awesome!”  “Hey, me too!”  “Does that surprise you?” I’m really not sure that many of these kids believed they were smart since a number on a paper is what society reveres as smart.

I think of kids in many traditional experiences now, classrooms that continue to focus on ritual and test prep, modules and worksheets, those where skill and drill outweigh voice and choice. Classrooms where teachers are fearful, administrators are domineering and controlling and learning is done by demand.  My stomach turns and my heart breaks when I think about the kids like me in rooms like that that still exist.  I can’t fathom how as much as things have changed in education many times they really stay the same.  Knowing what we know through research, VALID research, how can we ignore the learning styles of our kids?  Isn’t our job to prep them for LIFE, not focus on a test or rigid, developmentally inappropriate lessons? I truly believe that part of the “real” prep we need to do is to validate each child for the way their brain works.  Can you imagine NOT doing what you love?  Or being forced to do things in a way that you didn’t understand, couldn’t relate to, or were simply painful to get through?

Not surprisingly, the guy who always seems to be “antsy”, continually playing with things, bouncing his leg, doing anything he can to NOT work at his homebase – he was body smart.  The kiddo who just won’t walk away from a challenge, and bites on her pencil feverishly until she figures out a Brain Buster – yup, math smart.  The one who never seems to stop drumming on his legs, humming his favorite tunes – I called that one in week 2, he’s music smart.  The child who always dives to the window seat to snuggle up and soak up the sun – you got it, as nature smart as they come!  It was so awesome to spend the time doing this – I can’t tell you the joy and validation the kids showed.  Most didn’t surprise me; after watching the kids learn over the past 9 weeks it was easy for me to predict, but it was a reassuring surprise and validation for the kids.  It was like high tide - negativity, odd glances, and labels all fell away and insight, self-affirmation, and pride filled in.

As we finished going over the data, one kiddo who is very hesitant and appears almost fearful of making a mistake approached me.  Looking glum, head bowed, almost on the verge of tears, he quietly said, “Mrs. W., this says I’m Math smart and I just don’t understand”.  I explained what “Math smart” really means and what your brain “sees” and interprets as math.  Within nano seconds after I finished with the explanation his head snapped up, face beaming, arms flailing, he cheered, “Well, now this COMPLETELY makes sense!”

Yes buddy, no words could be truer.

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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

How are you defined?

Really, what defines who you are? 
  • Your work ethic? 
  • Your perseverance? 
  • Your character? 
  • Your fight for justice?
  • Your accomplishments?
  • Your success?

And when you decide those things, then how do you know you’re doing well?  What’s your barometer?  What’s your intrinsic motivation?  What helps push you onward to attain more, overcome a challenge by working in a different direction, and persevere to become a better person?  Of course we all have bad days, but most days we do our best putting as much effort, heart, and soul into something and hopefully approve of our work at the end of the day or make a plan to do better the next. 

Can I ask then, how would your image of yourself change if you were graded on it?  A number, a score, a parameter on what you pour yourself into.  You know, each day your principal parades around your room holding up a sheet of card stock with a large, red D stamped on it?  Hour by hour your teammates write on your door window in bold, blue vis-a-vis a bubble letter grade.  It’s so final.  A done deal.  No going up or down, no mention of perseverance or progress.  Pretty absurd, huh?

In posts before I’ve talked about Dear Boy – such a bright kid who has more knowledge of history and world events than anyone I know (other than his grandfather!) and like his Momma he’s been “blessed” with an “out of the box brain”.... well, blessed as long as it didn’t come to grades and school.  I can’t tell you how many ugly scenes have been played out, turning our home into a battle ground, about grades and how they defined him negatively.  His ideas and “design” for learning was very different and was almost never acceptable in the “boxed” parameters of learning which didn’t play out well on daily papers or a report card.  Grades have defined who he believes he is as a learner and truthfully, what he believes couldn’t be farther from the truth.  But day after day, year after year he was defined simply with a number – a standard of how he measured up to 100.  What did that number tell him?  What suggestions for improvement were made through two digits?  How were his accomplishments and small successes acknowledged through two characters that prominently faced him each time he received papers back from teachers?

When I began teaching, I worked with two veteran teachers who were like an old, married couple.  I liked them very much as people, but it was hard to be the black sheep that didn’t agree with their VERY traditional ways.  I did the daily tasks because it was “what we do” and I was the rookie.  All the while I writhed watching the kids who didn’t “get it” the first time, or kids who had sensory issues and struggled to function in the typical setting, or the multi-modal learners who were forced to sit still in one chair and complete a task with rigid parameters.  I’ll never forget teaching one of my guys about angles and distance through the layout of a football field (hello?  This is me.... YES, it was painful, but I had to get my guy to learn this!).  He needed multi-modal learning and immediate feedback, but I felt like I was performing some type of taboo ritual just to avoid the other teachers seeing me or discovering what I was up to.  ONE LESSON with “football talk” and the kid got it!  It used to kill me to put the required grades on papers – the kids who did their best, but just didn’t do well on paper were slapped upside the head defeated by their score and the kids who sailed through everything and didn’t care about much else cheered themselves for a grade earned with very little effort.  I watched kids define themselves with a number that I was guilty of placing prominently on the top of each paper.  That number I so easily tossed down became a badge of honor or one of horror.

I’ve said before, but I have to gush again and say I can’t ask for better teammates.  Although we do get down with the overwhelming demands on us, being slammed into high stakes testing and Common Core, other challenges that pull us down, and the increasing needs of our kids, at the heart of teaching our beliefs are the same.   We wrestle each marking period with “putting kids in a box” – it’s just so defining and truthfully at times can be obsessive for children and parents, causing them to lose sight of what was accomplished, overcome, or improved.  We focus on our kids’ strengths and bounce ideas off each other about improving their struggles.  We peer coach and give each other suggestions and feedback; not numbers and scores.  We focus on insight and reflection and ask our kids to do the same.  There are many days when I watch the kids’ faces to see the understanding of and connection to what my notes say with suggestions to make improvement or congratulations on making progress.  It’s a similar to a dancer, an artist or a craftsman – they’d NEVER receive a score, but instead specific, immediate feedback on their craft to become better at what they do.

We’ve spent the past few weeks on owl research; so many topics that have been tackled through this inquiry unit.  I’ve watched some kids take on unbelievably challenging topics and others struggle through the simplest.  But, how I approach either student is what makes the difference.  For me to give one student an A when they reach their minimum is just as much an injustice as writing a D on the student who has reached his/her maximum, but is completing his job and putting his heart and soul into it, doing the absolutely best job he can and being pretty darned successful.  The kids pull out their projects, find a sticky from me (I write directly in journals & learning logs, but not on final projects) with specific feedback and work incredibly hard to improve and make changes or sit back and smile with self-satisfaction knowing they’ve done their best and pushed themselves to do things that didn’t seem possible. 

Just today I asked my kids if they knew how they were doing in third grade.  It was a 50/50 split of who did and didn’t – those who didn’t said it was because they didn’t have grades.  I am heart sick to tell you that at eight years old they equate their learning, their worth to a number.  A long conversation ensued and I told them if they wanted a grade I would give them a Z, an L, or a J or if they’d like a number I’d be happy to assign a 364, a 497, or even a 1,467.  They giggled and started to realize that learning isn’t about a number and in fact how little a number can tell you.  One sweet kiddo said, “You know Mrs. W, learning is about making your best even better.  It has nothing to do with numbers or letters”.  Ah, child.....your wisdom is beyond your years!

Yes, it takes time.  Yes, I often struggle not to spill my lunch on their work while writing notes.  Yes, I get behind.....sometimes VERY behind.  But every student gets the same thing, feedback; some cheering on and specific suggestions for making changes & improvements or a reference to a learning log to look back at previous work and learn from their own work.  They’re at the point now, only 8 weeks in that they crave feedback and look forward to reading the notes – now that is pretty cool.  

As a kid, I can remember getting work back and feeling the largest kick in the gut, stomach in knots as I was about to lay eyes on my grade, that defining moment, the badge of horror, being put in a box that I had little choice about.  It’s not what happens in my room.  The hours I pour into writing feedback, it’s worth it.  Explaining to parents why I won’t focus on a number, it’s worth it.  I’ve seen a huge change in the effort my kids put into their work and the pride they take in it. There has been a different level of learning in my room because the kids are always pushing themselves toward being better – not a better grade, number, or score, but a better self.  They ask each other for suggestions or give each other rave reviews or specific critiques; they’re in this for the learning, NOT for the number.
Yes, it is AWFULLY hard to have to think about putting a number, in a box, on a paper, concretely defining each student, knocking down any belief in themselves as a learner, in a few weeks – I’d love nothing more than to accidently drop them all in the burn pile, but I’d even settle to X out each grade and pour myself into hours of narrative notes.  I’ve had MANY conversations with my teammates and principal about how much I dislike report cards (did I mention that one time I didn’t read Beezie’s for two months?!).  Thankfully, we are having Student-led, parent conferences so the students can proudly define who they are, address the struggles they are working to overcome, and celebrate their strengths and achievements.  The report cards will, unfortunately, come later after our conference.  It’s my hope that they don’t extinguish the pride the kids have in themselves as learners; the belief they have that they are achievers.

All the time, all of the extras, all of the piles of notebooks are worth it to me; I need no affirmation other than the looks on the faces, the seven/eight year old comments, questions, and smiles, the drive for more and for better.  These little people are counting on me to move them forward and push them to reach for something they never dreamed of reaching. 

They really do believe the stars are waiting...

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Monday, November 11, 2013

My weekly post will be up tomorrow, but for today I’d be remiss to not stop, pause, and say thank you. To the men and women who have served over the years, thank you for your selfless time serving our country.

To my former students, you will always be my kids. So when you went off to Afghanistan and Iraq I silently grieved.  When you returned I quietly celebrated.  Thank you for selflessly serving, I’m still so proud of you.

It wasn’t until a conversation with a colleague this week that I realized that my own children have never known a world where the U.S. was not involved in conflict or war around the world.  It was so sad to me.  It was at that moment that I’ve never been more grateful for the service of my family and my freedom.

My dad has traced our family history to every battle and conflict that America has ever seen, thankfully ending in the World War II era.  Great-grandfathers and their fathers, grandfathers, great uncles, father-in-law, and my father have all served.

More personally, I’ve been told and retold stories of our family heroes:
For my Uncle Dominick, who served in the North African invasion and later was moved to the Normandy invasion, thank you “Micky”.  This handsome young man paid the ultimate price with his life after a fierce enemy encounter.  A brave man, who was the ultimate hero to his platoon – giving his life so they could return home and keep theirs.  A silver star, a bronze star, and the Purple Heart will never replace the grief that the family went through in losing you.

For my grandfather who, two days after Uncle Dominick was killed, was “slightly wounded” (ahem, amputation - I’m always amazed by the words the government uses) in France, thank you Poppy.  His injury and sacrifice would live with him for the next 34 years.  His distinctive gait that I remember was the ultimate reminder of the sacrifice he made on that day.  Every little girl has a hero in her life and my Poppy was mine – tall, strong, brave, proud, and protective.  The war, his injuries, and the battle never really left him - my hero succumb to cancer related to war and my world came crashing down on my 10th birthday. 

My maternal grandfather saw plenty of action himself.  On his ship in the Pacific, for some reason his life was spared from the Kamikaze pilot whose plane blasted into the ship where he was to be the gunner on duty that day.  Unfortunately, the sailor in his place died, and my grandfather returned home to his wife and his infant daughter.  I never knew of the battle he had seen or life on a ship that was continuously under attack with no way to retreat, until the day he died and we were writing his obituary.  Thanks Bepa for your silent service.

To my dad, the one who taught us to be proud of our military men and women.  The one who has so much pride in our service and shares that pride with my kids in our family’s story and kept the memory of my uncle and grandfather alive.  From jumping out of airplanes, to maneuvering tanks, to being spit on & being threatened by anti-war protesters in the airport on his way home to see my mom and sister, he certainly paid his price.  Although my kids believed his tales for years, that he fought at the Alamo with Davey Crockett and jumped out of a plane to single handedly save the president, he is what every child deserves - their hero. Thanks for your service dad. 

To each veteran, near and far, to those serving right now on the front lines to protect our freedom and the freedom of others, my family and I thank you.

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Sunday, November 3, 2013

Take your mark!

I have made a decision to become chairman of the American Athletic Olympic Committee. Changes will be enacted right away to bring more integrity and leadership to the athletes that represent us.  Athletes will be required to meet more rigorous standards and far surpass their past scores and times since they’re falling behind other international scores.  The same training schedules will be scripted and formally prescribed for all athletes, at all levels, in every sport. Coaches will need to update all certifications and take on even more demanding classes to prove their value and their merit will be based heavily on their athletes’ ability to perform on that one day of their event.

I was able to gain this position because after all I watch every Olympic games, winter and summer, from opening to closing and have some sports that are my favorites.  Another qualification worthy of mention is because after all one of our former kiddos, and classmate of Dear Boy, will be competing for a position on the 2016 hammer throw team and well, I knew the kid and then I’ve also been at speed skating qualifiers to watch a friend of Beez’.  And finally, well I consider myself a four year, Varsity member of my Alma Mater’s track and field team – I never missed a meet, indoor or outdoor, and trained really hard to be the best, most outstanding spectator for every race, each hurdle, and every high jump event my brother was in.

If you’ve dragged yourself off the floor from howling at the prospect of me having ANYTHING to do with athletics, you can read on.    If you’re just not sure what I’m talking about, go back a few posts and it will become clear – I don’t run!  As “dear friend” reminded me just this morning, my kind of triathlon is eating a pizza, a doughnut, and hot fudge sundae! As absurd as my “announcement” is, it’s comparable to the ludicrousness I find in politicians weighing in on education and what’s best for kids while removing millions of dollars in funding from budgets, and instead pouring it hand over fist to “for profit” companies.  Insanity abounds as billionaires lead everyone to believe our kids are falling miserably behind other nations and they know the exact quick fix and furthering the absurdity is commissioners who lay heavy burdens & mandates on schools, shovel insults at parents and teachers in public forums; all while having no experience, as a parent or teacher, in a public school classroom.   

What commissioners, politicians, and billionaires don’t see are REAL classrooms....the places we all live each day where there are NO cameras, no media frenzy, no photo opportunities.  I live in a place where we see hunger and stress, poverty and wealth, sameness and differences, success and struggle.  I don’t need insults slung constantly at a profession that I’ve worked my tail off at with the passion, drive, and frankly love I have for the children and the remarkable minds they bring to my room each day.  If for one minute these people believe that beating us down is the way to produce quality in education, they sure have a lesson or three to learn!  My cousin, a retired Super of a very large, prominent school district, once told me he could get anyone to try anything as long as they knew he believed in them. 

I don’t need a module, a scripted, “minion-ized” lesson, to tell me how to teach. I won’t stand for producing superficial, robotic learners.  Every day I teach standards and most importantly I know how to produce developmentally appropriate challenges that make kids think, ponder, question, evaluate, and discuss.  My kids are challenged every day with questions I pose or ideas and challenges I throw out at them that are standards based however what I do “looks” different and is often perceived as “odd” or “wrong” according to traditional classroom standards. 

Perhaps if you walked by my room you’d think I was clearly out of my mind.  I have a “living room” full of books, cozy chairs, and yes a bathtub.  Many of my kids work on the floor or work in another area kneeling at the coffee table.  Environment is critical to me, but what it looks like is only one part of what goes on in my room.  Kids who don’t like school learn to love it, kids who think little of themselves as learners see themselves as brilliant, and kids who aren't motivated begin moving mountains.  During recent research about owls a student, who struggles to focus and produce work, but is a VERY bright boy, jumped up (almost knocking things clear off the table) and yelled, “Yes!  I finally found it!”...and then realized that e-v-e-r-y single person in the room knew he found something!  This boy was adamant that he WAS going to find out everything he could on the anatomy of an owl and we celebrated his success and he shared it with others – his perseverance and resolve to find answers was inspiring.  When we recently introduced the Word of the Week, my teammates and I wore masks the first day and dressed “incognito” as characters from “Mr. Lemoncello’s Library” on another.  The excitement was palpable.  But, there’s not one student who at any given time couldn't thoroughly explain what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and what they've learned.  The challenges provided can always link back to the standards, but I would feel slighted as a professional and delinquent in stretching my kids’ thinking and evaluating if I simply read from a module/script.  Unfortunately, out of fear and being continually torn down, we've been minimized to believing that the only way to cover new standards is to follow a prescribed script.  We believe that it is our “fault” that other nations perform better on testing, that our students are failing simply based on a number, so we best follow one prescription.

Each morning as I go step by step from lamp to lamp I sike myself up for another great day where I can’t imagine what will be uncovered, where kids will have themselves excited about learning.  There’s nothing spectacular about’s a takes time.  Are there bad days?  I’d be a liar if I said “no”.  But each day I find that strong resolve to fight on.

I urge you to rethink and reflect on your room.  Just as there is NO WAY the Olympic Committee would ever let me change what they do without a fight (let’s be honest....or let me NEAR an athlete!), there is NO WAY that I’m going to let politicians or billionaires completely take over my classroom or my kids’ education without a fight. With the pressures we’re under and the mud that is slung, we have to refocus on what we know is best for kids within our classrooms and within the standards, whether we agree with them or not.  We need to resolve to believe in ourselves and our abilities to guide and challenge students, to push and pull their minds, to require and refine.  We need to reach out to people we trust and challenge and hold each other up along this journey.

On our way home from speed skating qualifiers this afternoon, Beez and her friend Min, a kid I adore, were chatting about their teachers - teenagers are SO interesting to listen to!  Of course I’d weigh in here & there and play devil’s advocate.  They brought up an interesting debate they had had after a teacher asked about “cheating”.  I gave my very strong opinion against what their teacher had said and what I firmly believe about what happened.  At that point Min said, “Mrs. W, you’re right about kids being resourceful and persevering. It's how you teach kids. I mean have you ever really looked at the kids who walk out of your room at the end of every year???”

If you’ll excuse me, I hear a triathlon calling my name.

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Sunday, October 27, 2013

It's electric! (Nope, not the popular dance!)

Hello, my name is Melissa and I have a strong personality.

There, I said me or leave me, it’s who I am.  Lots choose “leave me” – it’s easier there. 
I don’t give up, I don’t walk away, I fight for what I believe in and that can be a lot to take.  I’ve put blood, sweat, and tears into becoming a strong, confident woman & educator and won’t apologize about who I am (insert pity for my parents, kids, hubs, and colleagues here!).   

I have incredibly strong feelings about test prep.
I have incredibly strong feelings about homework and packets.
I have incredibly strong feelings about superficial learning.
I have incredibly strong feelings about every classroom looking the same way.
I have incredibly strong feelings about high stakes testing and truthfully most tests. 
I have incredibly strong feelings about being encouraged to use a script to teach from. 

Although there weren't many, I did have some incredible teachers who took the role of lead learner and provided remarkable, thought provoking, challenging classes – unfortunately it was at the college level.  Most of my elementary and high school years consisted of worksheets, rote learning, spit it out on a test; I remember most teachers’ names or a humiliating experience I had in their room, but that’s about all.  I won’t be that teacher.   

Since we, in New York, are now being encouraged to use state provided scripts (teacher says this, students do this) to teach from I feel like we’re in a bigger battle that we ever imagined and it terrifies me that many will sit back and accept it. Recently, I sat through hours of a PD meeting being talked at about how wonderful these things were, being shown videos of “exemplar teachers” teaching, etc.  I was floored how basic these ideas were, but even more how “rote” the lessons and videos were.  There wasn’t much innovation, nothing that I haven’t seen somewhere in my building or district.  But we have minimized education to watching videos and being handed scripts from state ed (did I mention the ELA are written by a “for profit”, education reform company?) and being coerced to believe that our kids are failing miserably because of scores on tests. 

We have minimized and demoralized public education and the knight in shining armor has become rote scripts, test prep, and scores.  If I may.....we are entering dangerous territory.

Administrators worry about how their building may look or are quick to compare building scores and put on bravado, the childish armor of confidence, when comparing their test scores to others rather than discussing and sharing how well their kids can solve problems, find solutions, or come up with their own intriguing questions.  Better yet, they could encourage conversation and provide time for professional sharing in classrooms. This “my scores are better than your scores” mentality serves only to compare, divide, and fragment our children’s education.  When scores are so heavily leaned upon they pit colleague against colleague; sharing and valuing ideas is diminished, and safety within collegial teams is destroyed.  After reading some work of Michael Fullan, I was struck by his quote, The four ‘wrong’ drivers (a policy and related strategies) are compelling on the surface, and have a lot of face-value appeal for people with urgent problems. They will be hard to dislodge. The politics will be fierce because leaders want immediate results, and are susceptible to what look like plausible solutions but turn out to be silver bullets.

When encouraging test prep and sameness, students lose out on an intrinsically motivating education, a place that encourages life learning, in and out of the classroom.  I have yet to meet a child who wakes up each morning excited to go to a classroom where it is scripted, test prep focused, and a superficial learning experience.  I was blown away a few weeks ago on the soccer field when a mom approached me and we continued what seems to be our weekly education talk.  She told me how things have changed so drastically with her kids in 5th and 2nd grade – they used to leap out of bed to get ready for school and bound off the bus at the end of the day to tell her of their packed, exciting days.  Now, they won’t get up in the morning and cry when they do, they beg her not to “force them” to go to school, and plead for her to home school them.....because school “used to be fun” and they hate being there now.  After school they’re packed down with hours of required rote reading, responding, and completing worksheets instead of being encouraged to create, build, explore, find out, and ask; in my opinion, all for the sake of a score.  My heart broke; it completely shattered to know that at 7 and 10 these kids think so little of themselves or of learning.  Kids who used to be so excited about school that they didn’t want to have weekends so they could learn more, kids who couldn’t wait to get back into the classroom to see what was next, now are begging their parents to keep them away from it.

Again, Michael Fullan addresses successful schools:  "Thus intrinsic motivation, instructional improvement, teamwork, and ‘allness’ are the crucial elements for whole system reform. Many systems not only fail to feature these components but choose drivers that actually make matters worse.

I will be the first to admit, I’m incredibly lucky to have the building administrator I have.  Believe me, it makes a huge difference to have the kind of support that I have.  I can whole heartedly tell you though, that when we no longer have him I still will be who I am.  I won’t change who I am for the wishes of those I work for if they’re unfounded or not based on reliable research – and yes, I will risk having a massive file of insubordination letters or disciplinary action, but I won’t sacrifice a child’s education or belief in themselves as a successful learner.  I am also incredibly blessed to have teammates that I trust completely; we are able to safely encourage each other to do what we know is best, share ideas and projects, support each other’s ideas and insights – they are invaluable to who I am as an educator.

As we worked on Friday on a student inspired unit on owls, grown from Poppy our current read aloud, the kids shared found information with each other.  While staying in given parameters, they were to come up with their own focus of study, some incredibly intriguing, ones that I couldn't have dreamed they’d come up with, let alone tackle; comparing size, location, and habitats of owls across the world, determine various speeds of flight and diving capabilities, in depth study of one specific owl, and anatomy of owls. (yep, I'm proud to say they're 8!)  I haven’t given a worksheet or a pre-printed anything – simply a pile of books, parameters they will have to work within, and a whole bunch of encouragement and excitement for learning.  The atmosphere has been electric and exciting.  They have “boo-ed” me when it has been time to go to recess and have come running around the corner at me in the morning to show me the map they printed or facts they learned at home – which weren't required.   I am teaching within the standards, but not within a bubble.  Will they “ace” the state assessments?  Maybe, maybe not.  But I won’t sacrifice the love and excitement of learning that happens every day in my room for a score earned over a few days.

As one student cleaned up on Friday, she turned, looked up at me with her big, beautiful eyes and said, “Learning is magical!”

“Choosing the wrong drivers for whole system reform”  Michael Fullan  2011 Centre for Strategic Education Seminar Series Paper No. 204, May 2011

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Saturday, October 12, 2013

The power of one...

I’ll admit I was pretty bummed that Malala Yousafzai was not chosen in winning the Nobel Peace Prize. I think we missed a huge opportunity to teach young people the power of one – the power of one young woman standing up and fighting for others' educations.  She’s not a corporation, she’s not in it for the fame, and she’s certainly not in it for the money....just one young woman out to save as many as she can.  I wanted Malala Yousafazai to win for my son, and for my daughters, and for the over 300 kids who have been part of my classroom family and will always be part of my life.

But something happened last night that made me turn Malala’s mission around for some self-reflection in my own classroom.  The district that Dear Hubby and I work for played our high school Alma Mater in a Friday night “under the lights” game lastnight – purple and gold runs deep in our families – my mom and dad, sister and brother, and Dear Hubs wore multiple Varsity letters (I know you’re shocked I’m not in that list!) and lined the field clad in purple and gold.  For years the hubs would go to high school games, sometimes with old teammates & lifelong friends, and each time I’d ask, “Did you talk to Coach B?  It would mean a lot to him if you’d talk to him and maybe let him know what he meant to you.”  Answer has always been “No” or “He’s too busy for me”, “too focused on the game” or other more technical “football-ese” that I completely don’t understand (and he proudly takes advantage of!).  You see, the coach/teacher that Hubs played all four years for is still producing winning seasons at dear old THS.   After begging and badgering for years I gave up.

Last night, was different.  Bea raced into my room while Hubs was still unpacking the truck and said, “Mom, Dad went to the fence and waited for him!  He finally talked to Coach!”   Hubs came in shortly after and said, “Did Bea tell you I saw Jack?”  (me:  nodded, grinned)  “His kids are good you know.  They’re grown and ....” and proceeded to tell me every detail about the conversation including the things that he “can’t believe he remembered”.  This coach was a favorite teacher at our inner city high school; it was hard to get into his classes and I’m proud to tell you that it was t-h-e  o-n-l-y  A  I ever earned in high school and it was NOT due to my athletic prowess!  ((insert roaring giggle))  Coach B, one of Hubs’ two favorites, didn’t have to talk to him, didn’t have to make time to catch up, didn’t have to make time to talk to our daughter and ask questions, but he did – he was the one.   The thing that makes this more special is that football and these coaches were Hubs’ lighthouse in a pretty rough teenaged life.  There were so many things the coaches didn’t know he was going through.  He always brought his A game, but in turn the support they gave him got him through those tough struggles they had no clue about - he couldn’t afford a coveted gold banded, purple Varsity jacket to put his hard-earned Varsity letters on and although he was desperate to make his coaches proud and accept that football scholarship to Rutgers he was devastated that he couldn’t for reasons that were out of his control.  He went on to face adversity and I often wonder how many of their life lessons he continued to carry to get him through losing his dad unexpectedly, in his arms, at 23 and his mom not long ago, that proving himself his whole life has been a battle that he has proudly taken on; mindful of each struggling step.  And in one turn, one conversation, Coach B has no idea the impact that he once again made on my dear Hubs’ life – because he was the one, the one who was there then and the one who was here now.  He took just a few moments.  He retaught and rehashed and reaffirmed every life lesson he taught my guy some (gulp) thirty years ago.  And he doesn’t even know the power his words and his integrity have.

As I crawled into bed, Hubs fast asleep with what seemed a small smile on his face, I wondered if I have made that kind of difference to the kids who have crossed my path.  Do “my” kids get together with old classmates and tell stories and share memories about my classroom?  Does that child who has moved on know that I’d do anything for them?  Did I teach each day with such integrity and strength that my kids KNOW that I will always have time, that they will always matter?  Does each of my kids know with their entire being that their self-esteem, self-worth, their view of themselves as learners is WAY more important to me than a test score? 

I truly believe we’re about to make a huge mis-step.  I truly believe that we need to take back control of what we know is best for kids and best for their learning.  That it’s about WAY more than an effectiveness rating.  That it’s about WAY more than how the education department and media portray me in the news.  That it’s about intrinsic, real world lessons and not about modules made by an education reform corporation.  That it’s about me getting down and dirty to make a difference for one child in my room.  That it’s about me making a difference on the day that a child is at their worst.  That it’s about me standing up for what’s right for my kids & classroom when others just want me to sit down and be quiet. 

As Malala Yousafazai said, "I speak not for myself but for those without voice ...”  Thanks Malala, I’m going to be that one and thank you for being that strong, young woman to stand up and show the world strength & power & courage and the difference one can make.

And thanks Coach B, from all who have crossed your path (and for my only A!), but especially for what you've done for my’ll just never know your power of one.

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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Name that tune!

I’ve never really been an “in the box” kind of girl.  The thought of going off somewhere on my own is exciting, taking down a wall on my own to “surprise” the hubs is exhilarating (well, for me anyway!), tearing into yards of fabric to reupholster a chair for the first time is get the idea.  I guess I didn’t realize it or become okay with who I was until mid-thirties, but I have come to embrace who I am.  Different?  Yup.  Odd?  At times. March to (not just my own tune!) my own darn band?  Absolutely ... thank you very much!

While avoiding those obnoxious household demands meandering around the house this weekend I was thinking about my own learning history.  I distinctly remember getting in trouble in elementary school for “tapping” during Math – it was the best way I knew how to make sense of numbers.  There was another time when my teacher was FURIOUS that I was doing “some nonsense with numbers” and not doing “what I was told to do” on my paper – again with math.  Apparently I wasn’t thought of as a “numbers girl” and yet, thirty some years later what I did is now coined and widely encouraged as Touch Math and Base Ten or friendly numbers.  When, in middle school, we had to memorize the Preamble I decided to make up a tune to sing it to (and yes, I can still sing it today!).  But that wasn’t acceptable to that teacher and although I don’t remember my grade, I assure you it was a traumatic experience.  Musical ingenuity wasn’t valued over pure, rote memorization.  It struck me out of nowhere how inflexible my teachers were in finding out why I was doing things – all they knew is that it just “wasn’t THE right way”.  I wasn’t trying to push anyone’s button or be defiant (that came years later!!!!  ;-) I was simply doing what I had to do to learn what I was being asked to learn – it worked for me and made perfect sense to me, but that wasn’t considered, nor was it acceptable. 

As I shared my story of “tens” the other day, I showed the kids what I used to do when I added anything to a nine – if it was 9 + 7 I’d take a one from the 7 and “give it” to the 9 making the 9 into a 10, then I’d simply add the 6 remaining.  One of my kids literally jumped up from the rug and yelled “Oh my God, I D-O that!!!” – quickly mortified that he, a VERY quiet boy, had spoken out he slunk back on to the rug.  I praised him for speaking up and talking about his learning because it would help others see that there really are many more ways than one to do things.  He cautiously looked up at me and said, “But why did you get in trouble?  I just don’t get that.”  How do you explain to this 8 year old, with big doe eyes looking up at you with genuine concern & questioning, that you just don’t “get it” either?  Many days I’d like to pour a steamy cup of coffee, pull up a few cozy chairs, and talk with those teachers – for my own understanding and to become better in who I am for each little life I touch every day. Years of being told I was “wrong” sure took a toll on me.

I guess what strikes me even more is that in a way, so many things are the same in elementary schools some thirty years later – some classrooms continue to seem archaic, lines are really blurry between the two.  As the saying goes, “Would you want a doctor who still practiced the way she/he did thirty years ago?”  How often do we try to get into kids’ heads or do we just stay safely in our own?  How willing are we to listen to how kids learn and decipher information or is it easier to listen to the way we’ve always done it?  How “okay” are we with valuing kids working at their own ability level, producing in a variety of ways within given learning outcomes or are we only okay for them to produce the exactness of what we want?  Would noise and movement from kids constitute engagement & deeper understanding or would you rather encourage solitary learning forsaking depth?

Yes, my kids are 8, but already at week 3 they understand the value of learning with others, that there are many ways of learning, and that everyone has something of value to offer.  We began the year with the kids making up “essentials” for our room (not traditionally posted, teacher imposed rules) to function as a successful team, we are working to embrace the Swahili philosophy of Ubuntu (focusing on the importance of community, friendship, achieving together, sharing & that each of our actions affects the rest of the team), and I’ve worked to set up a safe learning space for every one of my learners.  It has taken time to teach my kids to rely on their own, as well as others’, understanding and abilities – we’ve become such a solitary society, but kids are resilient and have the power to make change.  They are working to share information, gain new ideas, and seeking more challenging ways to solve problems.  Yes, I do teach within the Common Core, regardless of my feelings for it, but I do it in a way that I know is developmentally appropriate and appropriately challenging for 8 year olds.  I do it in a way that allows kids to become intrinsically motivated to learn; usually gaining more understanding than I ever expected.  In third grade, we study communities of the world.  Why have every student study the same country?  If we need to find out geographical location, various features of a country, and cultural differences, why does every child need to get that information from the same country?  Is it wrong that we, as a learning community, learn so much more about many different countries and then share that information to help others gain understanding?  That is learning. 

Is there one thing you might change to make learning different?  Is there a topic you’re studying that you might change the learning outcome or even allow student voice in that outcome?  Is there something you can differentiate so each learner is appropriately challenged at their level – maybe reading?  Possibly Math?

So, many states have signed on to the Common Core which is now being pushed hand in hand with high stakes testing.  Unfortunately, I see more and more people equating learning to prepping students for a test & achievement number rather than prepping them for navigating challenges that they will face as learners. 

As I think back to my own school career, I just don’t see many things that are different now than they were then.  In a time when we have the power to have a voice and make changes for our kids, it doesn’t seem that many people are willing to take that risk.  It WILL impact kids if we continue to teach in the same ways we were taught and they learn in the same ways we learned.

I’ve got a new tune stuck in my head ...... anyone interested???

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Sunday, September 22, 2013

please take a number......

For two weeks I’ve been watching my kids, waiting for the day when I see that glimmer that I can grab onto and run with.  Run to begin inquiry based learning.  So, I wait.  Please take a number. . . . 

After talking with a special area colleague about my observations and curiosities, which she is sharing as well, I’ve begun to consider things more closely.  In the past few years I’ve noticed changes in kids.  One thing I’ve seen is what appears to be a significant challenge in not only working with others toward a common goal/interest, but in being able to cooperatively produce a learning outcome.  Mrs. S. and I debated the causes; society has changed, community sports are more often encouraging elite performance, cuts in school-wide programs and health classes have minimized practice in collaborative teamwork.  I’m not so sure it’s any of those, but what if, instead, it’s right before our own eyes?  What if it’s education itself?  What if the cause is right in our own classrooms?

My nine year old niece has asked many times what she needs to do to move into my classroom because she’s going to lose her mind with the worksheets they have to do (ie: test prep).  Lola is one smart cookie and casually mentioned over the summer “I hate school and I hate to read”   W-H-O-A. . . . Houston?   This kid has always LOVED school, is incredibly bright, and now the sudden shift?                                                On our first PD day back, a colleague told me that her daughter spent weeks last year being “prepped”.  She felt that it may have produced better numbers, but lost her daughter significant “real” learning time, caused incredible stress for her and their family, increased illness, & sleepless nights for her child; none of which were worth the price said eight year old paid. 

I know I’m “odd man out” and the things I do in my classroom raise eyebrows, but as I’ve said before I’m NOT a test prep girl and no matter what the pressure or the potential cost it has on my career, I won’t do it.  I have heard of a huge increase in teachers spending weeks (and in some cases, the year!) on test prep, although they likely don’t realize how much they do.  What if teachers, subconsciously, are fostering and possibly encouraging the mindset of independent, scores driven, superficial learning? 
The other day I asked my kids to look at our tub (yes, THE bathtub that has a prominent place in our class Living Room!) and asked what they wondered.  <<insert cricket chirping>>  They s-a-t there.  You know that “dead” wait time?  Eternity?  After about 5 minutes one of the kids finally broke out with, “I wonder if Dr. D knows that’s in here?”  (Great job kiddo – make this about me!).  Thankfully, that question was the platform that others needed, although guardedly, to begin to wonder, but in the way they thought was “right”:  How heavy it is?  When did it get in here?  Did it fit through the door?   And finally, slowly, they moved toward “bigger” questions:  How big was the factory it was made in?  Was it made in this country? What kinds of tools did they use to make it? What type of metal was used to make it?

After cancelling out the dead noise of uncertainty with such great questions, I gave them a new task.  In a learning journal I showed them how they could draw a bag, rather large, in the center of a blank page.  I then placed a paper bag that was clipped shut in front of 7 different learning teams and asked them to record everything they wondered about it.  I didn’t keep track so I can’t tell you how long it took them to come up with something – wiggling, looking, searching.  Watching each face I could tell this was painful.  They wanted an answer, wanted me to tell them what to do, afraid of a blank journal page.  They - just - wanted – me – to – give – them – a - paper to fill in the right answer.  When I heard some questions from a few teams I stopped everyone, asked them to share “sample questions” from their teams, and returned them to their task.......and then, new questions began;  Can I write it here?  Does my answer have to go in a certain place?  Where do you want me to put it?  How should I write this?   I came to a sad realization:  these kids truly have lost the art of wonder, the art of questioning and discovering, the art of safely taking a risk of new thinking, the art of learning  independently.  An even bigger realization for me?  The fear of not gaining an “effective score” or the fear of not having a clear majority of class proficiency on a high stakes test may be to blame. 

In an article published by Alfie Kohn, he gives 8 facts about “Standardized Tests and Its Victims” (well THAT’S a hard title to swallow!!!).  It amazes me that this article was published thirteen years ago and yet the fight is a much larger battle now and it’s obvious that not many listened to him.  I’m not sure which one of his facts that I love most, but #4 is incredibly thought provoking:
“Fact 4. Standardized-test scores often measure superficial thinking. In a study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, elementary school students were classified as "actively" engaged in learning if they asked questions of themselves while they read and tried to connect what they were doing to past learning; and as "superficially" engaged if they just copied down answers, guessed a lot, and skipped the hard parts. It turned out that high scores on both the CTBS and the MAT were more likely to be found among students who exhibited the superficial approach to learning. …. But, as a rule, it appears that standardized-test results are positively correlated with a shallow approach to learning.Kohn, Education Week Sept. 27,2000

Kohn goes on to say that he knows he’ll be challenged on his research by defenders of high stakes standardized tests and adds five more points, including this one:

Far from improving education, high-stakes testing marks a major retreat from fairness, from accuracy, from quality, and from equity." Here's why.    “*…Standardized tests tend to measure the temporary acquisition of facts and skills, including the skill of test-taking itself, more than genuine understanding”.  Kohn, Education Week Sept. 27,2000 

This reaffirmed my core beliefs of leading with inquiry, discovery, and reigniting that fire of intrinsic motivation to learn.  There’s NO WAY I can motivate ANY child to learn through test prep.  To acknowledge and affirm every child’s natural ability to learn I HAVE TO use active, student centered learning.  Yes, I’m still addressing the standards and am assessing along the way, but I’m doing it with the role of “lead learner”.  It’s a different role, it was uncomfortable at first, but I am RARELY at the center of the stage.  As one of my kids put it the other day, “So, you’re telling us you’re just like a chaperone along for the ride?”  Yes, my lil dear, that’s exactly what I’m telling you.

Imagine if we all held tight to the Kohn philosophy. 

Imagine if more people pushed back and teachers refused to “test prep”, but instead did “lifelong learning prep”.

Imagine if more parents pushed back and demanded an end to this nonsense and opted out, refusing to allow their children to be abused through these high stakes standardized tests.


Please excuse me, I think my kids are about to call my number . . .

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