Monday, July 29, 2013

A summer S.O.S.!!!

I got a text from a great friend last week to help with a “set up” for her classroom.  I’m super psyched that she’s moving to second grade more chance for us to work together again!  We were moved to different ends of the building after teaching in the same room togetherit was an amazing year with really cool things happening learned so much from her…hmmm, wonder if we were “put in different corners” for having too much fun!  I missed her terribly, but we found ways to reunite, brainstorm, and problem solve!  Now it’ll be easier to cause trouble collaborate with her.

A few years ago, I made a leap to really change the environment and my approach to teaching - moving from “teacher” to “lead learner” in my room.  It was a big leap since my room looked and felt V-E-R-Y different from colleague’s rooms – although it has been said more than once, I always seem to think “outside the box”.   I wanted a “homey”, comfortable setting where everyone met with success, risks could be taken, and learning was not threateningTHAT was most important.  I wanted the “feel” of the environment to be noticed right away.  As I've said before, I’m not terribly traditional the kids work in teams (unless they choose to be independent), we collaborate on projects, work on inquiries together, work on the floor or at tables, etc.  It’s my passion that every kid loves to learn and is prepared to handle any challenge that’s thrown at them.  Learning becomes intrinsically motivated, almost contagious, and is guided by me, but led by the kids – it’s so cool to watch.  It’s been one of the best decisions I've ever made.

Anyway, I went in and spent some time helping S.  My first comment to her (as she nervously paced and I giggled with excitement!)  "pick an important place"she started with her “book nook” which is where I would have started, but she had to own this.  You need to make the areas you value most be noticeable, work the best for you and feel comfortable for what you want to do with them…those areas are always noticed first.  We pushed tables, desks, and other items out of the way - this area is really important to her, so we had to make sure we had plenty of room.  Once that was done, we moved and pushed until we had the perfect set up for her whole group/rug area – going so far as to tape off the floor where the rug would go – the space had to include a rocking chair, a CD player, and a few other “necessities” for whole group instruction.  Happy with that, we moved to the instructional area/table.  There wasn't a ton of room, so I got a “little creative” and moved a few things (remember, asking forgiveness, rather than permission, is my motto – my poor principal knows this too well!!)……voila!  More room made for that table and lots of extra space for kids!  We moved furniture away from the door, pushed her tchotchke holder desk (which I wouldn't be surprised if she got rid of soon!) against the wall, made “visual access” across every angle of the room to make it more open and inviting.

After we finished with those “big 3” it was time to look at “home bases” for kiddos.  The room felt a little cramped, so I questioned how the kids will work teams?  alone?  Knowing S well enough, I knew the answer (teams for SURE!), but it's her space and she had to decide this for herself.  We ditched two tables and it was decided that the instructional table/area would be home bases for kids it would only be the place for the kids to land or grab a pencil, but learning could take place anywhere in the room.  The room felt AMAZING – boxes, crates, and piles were still on tables, but the atmosphere felt great!  At this point S was concerned with where to house student supplies – I shared that my kiddos put their things in the tops of their cubby – sacred space for learning supplies, makes less clutter in the room, and demands organization for a small space!  My philosophy is extremely similar to S, so I think this will work great. 

It’s really important in set up to be sure your room feels the way you want it to – as soon as someone walks in to your room, the environment speaks volumes without you saying a word.  So, ask yourself:
_  What’s most important to you?  Does your room show that?
_  How does your space feel to the kids and colleagues?
_  What are you willing to change? 
_  Which space will be used most?  Does it need an "upgrade"?
_  Is there anything you can risk doing without?  Then ditch it!
_  Is there something you should risk bringing IN?  

I’m getting ready to head in to my room in the next week or two, but in the meantime I’m grateful for the time to keep creating.  Here’s my latest .... sanded down old paint, added new cherry red, a whole bunch of Modge Podge, and a few Archie & Jugheads!  Thanks to Dear Hubby and Maisie Doo for helping to cut apart all the comics!  (daily giggle - Veronica and Betty had MANY censored pages!)  
Love it, love it, love it!

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Monday, July 22, 2013

And......they're off!

AND……they’re off!

I live in upstate NY where summer months are marked by the “Saratoga season”.  It’s an exciting time here; thousands of locals and tourists get excited about the short racing season, the air is electric with anticipation, fans show up in the trendiest clothes, papers and programs, kids and coolers slung over shoulders.  I’m a people watcher and get excited for that more than the horses – to see people become so intense, engaged, and enthusiastic over a single mission is really exciting.  It’s novel each year, it’s exciting, and the same things are always new.

Saratoga season marks the time where I come out of my self-imposed classroom “hiatus” and begin to think about a similar excitement and engagement I want to create when school begins.  The commercials are starting and bathing suits and sunscreen have been replaced by aisles of school supplies.  We are all VERY aware that the year will be here soon. 

As I reflect on the huge successes of last year, I think about creating the same experience this year.   Since I haven’t been in my room yet to share pictures, I’ll dive right in to how I’ll set the tone for our room.  Every year, I always give myself permission to have a 5-10 day window of really working on community & “self” building, and much less focus on academics (which can be tough!) – if the kids don’t have trust in me, our room, and each other then I believe deep learning, intrinsic motivation, and trusted teamwork can’t happen.  

For a few years I have begun each new “season” with the foundation of The Seven Habits of Happy Kids by Sean Covey; it’s our guide through the whole year.  Our school has a different Character Education program that I also use, but I have found that Covey’s habits are more applicable to our learning community.  It is certainly NOT that long list of “dos and don’ts” and I’m not a “rules” poster – if the kids don’t have “buy in”, it’s not worth the paper the rules are written on.  Each habit has a short story, with recurring characters, to go with it and questions and suggestions at the end of each story/habit which are helpful to get us off the ground.  After a habit or two, the kids generally will begin to question and apply the habits on their own.    The 7 habits Covey includes are: Be proactive (You’re in Charge of You), Begin with the end in mind (Have a Plan), Put first things first (Work First, Then Play), Think Win-Win (Everyone can win), Seek First to Understand (Listen before you talk), Synergize (Together is Better), and Sharpen the Saw (Balance Feels Best).  I’m not a “fill the walls and hang every cutesy poster and rule and guide” kind of girl, but I ALWAYS have sacred space for posting each habit as we learn about it.  They’re the focus and we talk about them each day and how they have applied to life in our room, our school, and outside of school.  Generally, I give a few days’ focus on each habit before moving to the next.  Out of these habits, the kids quickly develop the guidelines to live by in our room.  The habits move to their permanent home, but are ALWAYS a focus for us throughout the year.  Although Franklin-Covey has a curriculum, I choose to follow my kids’ lead; I don’t want to get caught up in a curriculum or the tchotchkes that come with it, but move forward with the authenticity of building the “buy in” and of seeing where my kids take it. 

Again, those 5-10 days can be challenging with the “pressures to produce”, but I am pretty adamant about keeping those days dedicated.  We really work on fostering community and teamwork - a few years ago I ditched the desks (including mine!) and only use tables (called a “home base” because it’s where their pencils/pens are, but not necessarily where they work) which was the best decision I ever made!  Learning in teams, seeking out peer help, finding answers, and supporting each other needs to be developed and fostered.  With competitive sports teams, solitary activities, and busy schedules the kids aren’t used to working together with the mindset of true team success WITHOUT a score, recognition, or praise.  

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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

I am honored and excited to have written today’s blog for my principal's page on Ed Week.   

I talk about three of the most important "teacher" apps on my iPad; Remind101 (used to send text blasts to my parents), NoteShelf (used for anecdotal notes, grading), and GoodNotes (used to upload my PDF planning pages & keep professional documents organized).

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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Tonight's assignment is....

Ah, homework.  We had it, our parents had it.  It’s good for kids and has positive benefits.  It helps kids be responsible.  When I first started my career I dutifully assigned it because “I was supposed to” and my mentors said I should; each night Spelling pages, Math book, Science worksheets, read 20 minutes, etc. 

And then things suddenly changed for me.  Dear boy happened to have several early years with gobs of homework each night…this was tough; the square peg, round hole scenario…home was supposed to be safety away from it and it turned our whole family upside down.  One night, right about the time I got the H out in the word homework, we were blessed with yet another knock down drag out.  He was supposed to do his obligatory daily reading and journal entry plus Math worksheets. When he had finally started regaining human breathing rates and pulled himself together enough he screeched, “I hate reading anyway and this makes it worse.  Why do they keep forcing us to do this!”  Here I am a teacher and am supposed to support fellow teachers, but this stopped me in my tracks, speechless, hit me between the eyes kind of thing!  He saw this as being forced on him, there was NO love for reading, NO buy in as to what he was doing, NO sense or connections being made…stress was caused, shutdown happened, fight or flight fully engaged, World War III ready to commence.   Not only was on the front lines of a battle with my own flesh and blood over something I hadn’t imposed on him, but I kept thinking of the kids who DON’T have support at home and had to struggle through these assignments by themselves.  Although I caused a fuss, I couldn’t change minds then, so I did things on my own terms in my own home.  

Ultimately, I knew I had to change things for those kids who walked through my classroom door who were just like Dear Boy.  It was time to change the way I “assigned” nightly reading.  First up?  The kids had to keep track of the “most creative way to read” (treehouse, bathtub (yep, I’m partial!), under covers, under bed, using closed captions on the tv, etc), not minutes spent watching a clock or recording exactly what was read, and it was amazing to see the enthusiasm as we shared those places each day… I watched as the kids' love of reading grew and NO one mentioned a clock! 

Things changed again when Bea recently had a research project assigned.  The topic wasn’t terribly interesting and her “buy in” to the assignment was zero.  She had taken on a few extracurricular things and had MANY projects due at the same time (I always find that intriguing!) and she simply had had it.  I came home one day to find my enthusiastic, over achieving daughter a mess – a friend had told her that she turned in the 75 required note cards that were a significant part of the research project grade and (please sit down and hang on to something) the teacher FELT THEM, looked at her, and said “Yup, it’s 75.  I’ve been doing this long enough to know if you have the required number of cards”.  I believe at this point fire blew clear out of my ears and my heart rate reached that of a jaguar on the final approach of a kill.  Furious doesn’t begin to explain – this teacher has NO idea how much respect Bea lost for her that day and how belittling it was to those kids who worked so hard to complete that assignment to simply “feel them”.  If you’re going to assign homework and take up a child’s and their family’s time, in my opinion, you best make time to thoughtfully and carefully go through every line and letter of what a student did and provide feedback to help them improve.   Bea begged me “not to cause trouble” and not talk to the teacher or principal (ah, knows her momma well!).  I told her I wouldn’t, but she needed to consider something.  Forgive me for what I’m about to say, but I needed to do this to get a point across & selfishly, if she did follow through, I wanted to conduct a little system of checks and balances.  Knowing she’s too much of a rule follower to do it I asked her what she thought would happen if she left 10 cards blank, repeated the same short fact on another 10, and mixed them in as part of the 75.  Perhaps unprofessional, but I was tired of these kinds of assignments and the same unrealistic demands on my kid, a very enthusiastic learner, who had NO excitement, NO buy in towards what was being asked, and was quickly losing her zest for learning.  At this point I not only lost any lingering faith in this teacher, but also in the hope that she was even going to read this research paper, which in the end I believe is what happened.  The project came and went and Bea received an A+, whatever that meant…no feedback, no mention of things that were great or needed work, just a letter… summer came and so did another year. 

This past year, I decided to change things up a bit more with homework.  Each day I went out of my way to pull out my best actress and get really excited about websites I had seen or documentaries I knew were coming up, we continually “wondered” out loud about various things in our room, in their lives, in our world, we literally would stop the day to question and wonder about something important to my kids; I knew I had to “up” the excitement about learning and discovering on their own. I asked my kids to do the same things with reading at night (most creative place to read, etc.), asked them to be sure to practice facts (although they had ownership on how they studied  - flashcards, paper, apps, etc.), pick a chore to do to help out at home, record anything “extra” they did, and have their parents initial each.  Monthly, they brought home learning logs/journals and had Parent/Kid Conferences where they discussed their learning, progress, struggles, and goals which was included as an assignment to be completed during the week.   My homework checker simply recorded the number of things each child did each night.  Most nights every child did read and practice Math, on their own terms, but generally everyone went above and beyond with what they did – averaging 6 or 7 recordings each night.  I had to create that “buy in”, foster that intrinsic motivation, trust that I provided my kids a strong foundation to be motivated at home, and record their work.  Would worksheets and packets have created better learners?  Would a demand of using flashcards result in better scores?  Would documenting facts on note cards create "buy in"? Had I forced a bunch of requirements on them, I truly believe I NEVER would have had this year’s kids be as creative as they were, work as hard as they did at home & school, or be the motivated learners that they had become.

Have you thought about homework?  I mean REALLY thought about it?  Who are the “positive benefits” really benefiting and what are they exactly?  Is there research to back up the benefits? WHY are we assigning so much homework?  Does it truly serve to strengthen learning and foster responsibility?  I STILL keep going back to Dear Boy’s thoughts on homework (and education!) – a bright kid who has never liked school, but, post high school, has INCREDIBLE insight and thought provoking questions for me!
I’m a bit of an Alfie Kohn fan and love this quote from him, “For anyone willing to shake things up in order to do what makes sense, beginning a conversation about homework is a very good place to start.”  Simply Googling “Alfie Kohn homework” brings up many great links about rethinking homework.  As we slowly begin to think about a new year, I encourage you to reconsider homework - think about one change to make.  It may feel uncomfortable, but with time and a lot of thought the benefits can be incredible!

As the year wrapped up, we were talking at dinner about the kind of homework I have been assigning this year.   
Bea announced, “Mom, I have to tell you something…...”  
heart dropped…felt like a confessional... 
“.....remember the 75 notecards that I had to do last year?”  

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Thursday, July 11, 2013

Where do you work best?

Where do you work best in order to be most productive, creative, and inspired?  I’m a couch kind of girl, but I definitely have to be in a place that “feels” comfortable and I repeat that often to visitors in my classroom. 

When I first started teaching I did “what I was supposed to do” the desks were in rows in exact 90’ angles, (although I eventually became brave enough to slide them together!), the kids were all facing forward, “perfect” work hanging neatly on the board with the golden stars placed carefully in the corner, my desk was in the front of the room with neat stacks of papers & teaching manuals, (are you feeling that 1970’s school room yet?  Yeah, that) curriculum binders placed carefully on the bookshelf at arm’s reach, kids only spoke when called on & could provide the answer to the question asked, etc.  I didn’t dare move out of the norm all those years ago boy have things changed!!!

I’ve thought a LOT about where I work best and have brought that into my classroom if I need a comfortable place, then my kiddos sure do too!  It began with my great grandfather’s rocking chair and has evolved into desks into teams which were then exchanged for tables/home bases, creating a Book Nook which has evolved into a living room, hubby and strapping teenage son lugging in an antique claw foot bathtub and filling it with lots of pillows to make a comfy reading place, Gram’s table was repainted and brought in for an extra work space, completely scrapping my desk and instead creating a “home base” for me too, ditching half of my chairs to be replaced by therapy balls, I added a coffee table & stood back to watch how quickly the kids were drawn to it, and have had kids bring non-skid bath mats to use on the floor so they can spread out to work in teams on a comfy spot.  I recently went to a Country Living fair and was inspired by an artist to schlep off to a garage sale and purchase a “lovely” overstuffed chair I stripped the delightful green fabric and reupholstered it to add to our living room this year (before and after pics below!).  I took down all of the things teachers are “supposed to” have hanging (and instead created student generated/hands on anchor charts that are used in journals) replacing them with authentic student work and art NOT A+ work… but work from ALL students, to show them how important they ALL are to our team and how much I value what they do.

Please, make no mistake these things were NOT added without LOTS of thought & consideration and meaningful placement.  I didn’t want a cutesy room with lots of tchotchkes splotched all over the room.  From day one we work to establish the culture of our room it’s NOT about me, but about the buy in from and the belief & trust in my students.  I expect a LOT from my kids; we work hard from first bell to the last, I have very high expectations and with that expect rigorous learning.  It’s so much fun to watch people walk by my room only to back up and do a double take.  It doesn’t “look” like the typical room, but you will NEVER come into my room and not have a child tell you what they’re doing AND why they’re doing it they have come to know the benefits of each day walking down that long hallway, turning the door handle, and being welcomed home. 

So?  Where do you work best?  What one part of that place can you bring into your classroom?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Winding gear up.

We headed to my parents' Adirondack Mountains camp for the July 4th refresh, to renew.  It was time for me to slow down and unplug.  The beauty of the elevation is more than mountains, the lake, and the eternal search for salamanders; it's the thrill of HAVING to unplug with NO cable television, NO internet, and NO 3G services available in "never land". 

This is the time where most of us do so much reflecting on the year we had and the anticipation of the one to come.  It was time for me to reflect on an incredible year, simply one of the tops in sixteen years.   I can't put my finger on it - Was it my quest for inquiry based learning from day 1?  Was it the way that we worked so hard to become a team?  Was it my "not so quiet" resistance to the big brother take over with standardized testing?  Was it my vigilance to avoid numbers, but instead use words to evaluate and provide feedback? 

I keep thinking that after sixteen years, maybe it's at the point that I'm "pushing back", quiet resistance....I had to take a long, hard look at previous years of complacently going along with the top down mandates.  This year I really tried to shut the door, use the curriculum as a guide, and do what I know is proven to be brain/developmentally appropriate research in my classroom.  I'm not a numbers kind of girl.....if you ask me how many of my kiddos passed the New York State ELA or Math tests last year, there is NO way I could even try.  If you ask me how many of my kids improved fluency, mastered their multiplication facts, learned to view reading as a love and not a "have to", learned how to wonder and question and get answers, how many kiddos successfully studied a world culture and knew mind blowing facts by memory.....then I'm your girl and I proudly tell you.....E-V-E-R-Y  S-I-N-G-L-E  O-N-E!!!

It is an exciting time for me to think creatively, to contemplate new things, and do what I know is best for my incoming kiddos, NOT what's best for big brother.  Maybe it was simply a different way to see my classroom that made everything so successful.