Monday, August 26, 2013

A road less traveled...

What inspires you?  Drives you?  What’s that something that you just can’t get enough of?  And my favorite three letter question...why?  

I L O V E to create......there’s nothing like a hammer and nails, loads of fabric and a well-oiled sewing machine, ripping a chair apart just for the fun of recreating it with new life, tearing down a wall because I think it will look better without it (too many school vacation “surprises” has resulted in dear hubby hiding his power tools on me!).  For my sister it’s shopping, for my brother it’s biking (yes, I absolutely and proudly am the rebel rouser in the family!).  Mazie Doo has recently been on a “rope kick” – ties it to her pedal cart to see what will hold & drag her big sister (sister hasn’t been terribly cooperative!), has been tying it to her swing set to learn to walk a tight rope (thank you Judy Moody), and is now obsessed with learning to water ski – using “just the right rope” and is having a blast even though we have yet to make it around the lake.   I know rope freaks people out and has caused many looks and comments, so what?  She’s safe and she’s motivated all by herself to figure this out and best of all?  She’s learning.....shhhhhh!  Don’t tell her!  THAT my friend is intrinsic motivation!!!

We get to choose what we love, to give however much effort we’d like on things we love, things we need to know more about, things that get a fire lit in us.  What about the kids we teach?  At what point in their learning do THEY get to find that thing that lights them up?  Not something WE think will do start the spark, but something they get psyched about? 

I’m always intrigued in talking with Dear Boy about his experiences in school – there aren’t many at all that were positive.  Forgive my bragging, but this kid is pretty dang smart...for “fun” he used to try to stump his grandfather with facts of history of our country (inducing nausea from the rest of the family!).  Always intrigued by family history & trivia, he couldn’t get enough.  Except.....well....there’s his transcripts, yep, that number thing again, something that a person is judged by with no knowledge of background or opportunity, looked like this poor baby didn’t have a brain in his head which couldn’t be farther from the truth.   Interestingly enough when I would ask him why school was such an issue he generally said, “When they give us something to do that is actually relative or decide to trust us to make our own choices I’d ace them.”  Have to say, I believe him completely – he has NEVER been inspired enough or motivated enough to intrinsically value or get excited about the “required topic” even though he loves learning and loves information.

Last year I began my journey toward inquiry based learning.  I L O V E change (hmm, wonder if there’s a connection with those missing walls!) and was hesitantly intrigued with the process of inquiry.  I had done some PD, discussed it with my cousin who is a retired Super from a large neighboring district, and done tons and tons of research.  This was something I knew I could love – the art of questions, wonders, discovering answers, and most importantly intrinsic motivation.  Full disclosure?  I have an awesome principal who is incredibly supportive and is always pushing us to question ourselves and what we do & has been unbelievably supportive in trying new, educationally sound things – we are exceedingly lucky. But truthfully, I couldn’t stay somewhere or work with someone who wouldn’t be supportive of my pushing the envelope, digging and trying new things (remember you’re reading from someone who has a bathtub in her classroom!!!)

My biggest hurdle in starting was that kids in general are losing their sense of wonder and discovery – this presented my first challenge, they truly seemed fearful of wondering!  I was A M A Z E D how bewildering hard it was for kids to question and wonder.  It’s not clear to me if it’s that life is so busy it’s just easier to hand over an answer, if there’s too much “danger” in discovery, or if television and the digitized world don’t leave opportunity to question & dig for the answer. 

It really was a new world for me too – a world where I gave up being the “lead teller” and became a lead learner and supporter, patience sure was a MAJOR virtue when I started, and I had to learn to be okay with busy-ness with discovery & outcome projects that I didn’t design.  Yes, it was more work for me to provide feedback on daily learning that wasn’t “canned”, but I CANNOT tell you the rewards that the kids reaped (okay, selfishly there were SO many that I didn’t just reap, but rolled in them!) 

On the first day, last year, I provided a treasure map for the kids to get supplies organized.  I explained that this was like a bird learning to fly and I would be there to catch them, but it was really up to them to work together and figure out how to get through this map.  I promised that I’d swoop in if they needed me, but otherwise I’d be nearby just watching – this was SOOO informative and so much fun to watch them (needless to say, on the last day of school, we were howling about this stumble!!).   We certainly had our growing pains, but I pressed on. 
By December, the kids knew there was not only safety in questioning, but there was a TON of satisfaction in finding the answer that would likely drive them to new questions.  We study countries in third grade and although my teammates and I came up with a general framework of mandatory study topics for each location, I began to move away from that – my focus was more on allowing student questioning & ownership within the parameters of Social Studies and ELA standards (one of the kids even added some Math standards by calculating how many miles it is and how many days it would take to DRIVE from New York to a butterfly cave in Mexico!!!!).  My kids who struggled most with focus and accomplishment suddenly had their faces glued to research books on native animals & insects of Mexico while others did some impressive research on the Mayan ruins.  I watched as issues with behavior dissolved, more kids kept themselves on task, and books were FLYING off the shelves.  Kids who needed support finding answers asked me or a teammate for help, those who struggled to read or write sought out someone who could help, and best of all kids were helping each other to learn more – intrinsic motivation to know, to learn, to question, and to understand.   There were bodies everywhere, I mean ALL over my room and we got some of those stares and comments, but every child was motivated to learn and to understand simply with a little guidance, a small nudge.   Every child knew what they were doing and why and were more than eager to share with any willing (or not so willing!) participant who walked by or came in to our room.  It was magical.

Many ask, “What happens with next year’s teacher?”  I can’t worry about next year.  I needed to take my place as lead learner, not as lead teller, for this year.  My job was to provide the best learning environment with as much rigor as possible for this year.  My goal was to get kids excited about learning and keep building on the value they placed on themselves as learners.  I needed to guide them, lead them, and let them soar as learners.   Needless to say I was a mess sad on the last day of school.  A mama couldn’t have been prouder of those kiddos – they not only took off, they flew ... and they flew fulfilled knowing what incredibly brilliant learners they were.

So, I’m gearing up for another year.  Another year that will start with growing pains.  A year where I’ll have to grab hold and help them get off the ground.  A year where kids will learn and grow and flourish and be intrinsically motivated to learn ...... and yes, that may even mean with a piece of rope.  

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Please engage your GPS

Where are you?  Really, where are you emotionally right now?  Are you defeated by test scores?  Feeling really badly about yourself and what you do?  Do you feel like you cheated your kids?  Like maybe you should have done just one more prep before the test?  Are you just not beaten down by several media outlets continual attack on us wretched professionals, so you add a little more yourself?  Yup……final destination, now arriving at the intersection of. insult to injury.  The results weren't devastating enough and the press isn't insulting enough, so we continue to beat ourselves up. I feel like this is a purposeful, methodical maneuver, similar to herding cattle to slaughter, made to help us feel that we don’t know what we’re doing, help us feel that we need to turn to a textbook that “knows” what we should do or to the ivory towers to point us in the right direction.  Do you find it coincidence or convenience that scores are released and highly publicized just before school resumes?

How bout this?  Consciously change position.  Seriously, change position of your mindset and if you’re really brave….of YOUR WHOLE CLASSROOM !   If we don’t take hold of this, grab the bull by the horns we ARE going to burn ourselves out and. . . . .faster than we can imagine.   At what point do we give ourselves permission to continue to teach children, NOT teach to attain scores?  When do we fully open ourselves up to doing what’s best for kids and turn our backs on the path of test prep and achieving a score?  When do we realize that one child we touched last year, you know the one …he had “that look” and seemed lost – you were their only hope to learn to dig deep and find their strength.  The one you went out of your way to reach & teach – you exuded loyalty when you were the only one in their corner when everyone else in their life had walked out.  What about that student that you were honored to be asked to surprise and say goodbye before a cross country move because she felt like you made a difference in her life – will her memory of you be for getting her that 4 on “the” test or will the strength  you taught be what carries her through this struggle?  What about the kids that are in a high school class are sharing memories of how you pushed them further than they ever thought they could achieve?  Does a test score or character matter more to your countless children who have lost family members when you were a huge support?  The family that had an accident and you went above and beyond to organize a team to help provide, how important is a test score to them or wait, maybe the lesson is in cooperation?  The student you went rushing to the hospital to see, did her score matter to her in the moment of crisis or is it the perseverance you taught her that she uses to fight through this battle?  The countless funerals you've attended for students’ family members or worse……for former students themselves – did their parents mention your rating score & the fact that they didn't meet guidelines for proficiency or did they make mention of the impact you had on their child’s life?  –

When do we, with pride, say “I MAKE A DIFFERNCE to a CHILD”!
We’ve GOT to stop this.  
We’ve GOT to speak out and speak up.  
We’ve GOT to talk truth about testing and the toll it’s taking on education and worse, on our kids.
It's time to change the setting on our GPS.
If not for you, then do it for them. 

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Wednesday, August 14, 2013


I’ve had time to look at my “high stakes scores” (insert Hollywood style, Fay Wray’s King Kong scream)….from a data stand they’re not impressive, okay full disclosure…horrific to the ivory tower of the powers that be. 

From my tower, I really don’t care.

I’ve said before, I’m not a test taker.  My degrees are in Literacy, Elementary Education, Reading, and English and I still did horribly on the teaching boards.  (Interestingly enough I believe a politician or two didn’t do so hot on the bar exam the first...or second time - just sayin’!)  Does this mean I’m not innovative?  Creative?  Hard working?  Does this mean I don’t push kids to think, to question, to ask, to discover, to dig?  Does this mean I don’t research and prove and question? Does it mean I don’t expect rigor and attention to detail?  Um….nope!  So, what I find so absurd is that those scores, which the politicians LOVE, show nothing – nada – zilch!  What they DO show is how 8 year olds stand up to pressure, to exhaustion, to confusion, to stress, and frankly to the flexing muscles in a political game.  They can’t possibly show how much collaboration & teamwork happens in my room.  They don’t measure the intrinsic motivation, depth of learning, and drive my kids have (not sure how well you can measure the “boo factor” – when the kids actually boo you for telling them it’s lunch time!).  They can’t possibly measure the creativity, excitement, and success with real life learning that happens in my room E V E R Y  S I N G L E day.

Years ago, Dear Hubby’s cousin worked for the U.N. in Sierra Leone and Darfur.  While the work could be incredibly dangerous he brought back so many life lessons that I try to bring into my classroom.  Families are poor there; I mean dig whatever they could out of what was cast aside in dumps and trash heaps to build shelter for the family poor, I mean the villagers wash their clothes in one shared basin poor.  The one thing I will ALWAYS remember that Cousin said was that no matter how difficult things were, no matter how harsh the conditions, they always took care to carry themselves with their heads held high and also made sure they took care of each other – being sure everyone in the village had what they needed to flourish.  These folks, despite challenges in every part of their daily lives, NEVER gave up.  Cousin’s favorite thing was to bring candy from the states back to the kids.  Again, he was often amazed at their selflessness in sharing what they had (one small child even tried to break his hard candy to share with other children) and making sure everyone in the village was taken care of and successful.  They went out of their way to help each other overcome adversity and achieve.

I’m sure you’ve seen the picture on the internet from the anthropologist in Africa who hid a basket of fruit and told the children in the village that whoever got to it first, won.  He was shocked to witness all of the children grab hands and run to find the basket TOGETHER then sat down together to share the treat. When he asked them why they had run like that, while one of them could have all the fruits to himself, they said: UBUNTU!  Ubuntu is an ancient African word meaning 'humanity to others'. It also means 'I am what I am because of who we all are'.   There was no test, no score, no assessment…but the terrain was rigorous, the task was challenging, and the work was motivating.

So for this year, I will continue the work I do with no mind paid to a six day, developmentally inappropriate, unreasonable assessment that tears children down, but instead with attention focused on 180 others of critical thinking, on collaboration, creativity, and teamwork, with research and depth, and intrinsically motivated eight year olds. 


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Saturday, August 10, 2013

score /skôr/ Noun

In NY, the Education Department just released test scores from recently aligned Common Core testing; “as expected” scores plummeted – What were the exact questions and passages?  How were the scores formulated?  How did the item analysis look?  Yeah, um...I can’t answer that because that isn’t released and apparently may NEVER be released – just the scores.  According to Webster, score is defined as “The number of points, goals, runs, etc., achieved in a game.” – THAT’S interesting because I believe this is just one more big, political game.  Teachers seem to be the pawn in the game, the intended “target”, but in the end we’re hurting kids in a game they never agreed to play.  If it weren’t a game then we’d be seeking out leading researchers and top notch teachers to help move toward rigor and improvement, we’d be pouring money from the lottery into education NOT into lobbying and political agendas, we’d be supporting schools, families, and kids NOT supporting a move to becoming a nationwide testing machine or privatization.

When I think about it, I have so many questions - how are my kids expected to succeed on this test when it’s written several grade levels above theirs and they can’t use the strategies I’ve taught them on how to get through challenging material?  How are THEY supposed to feel safe when, without a word, I’ve promised to protect them and guide them through rigorous information, but they’re set up to fail on the gauntlet their being forced to run while I stand by and watch?  Mandates or not, when it comes to my kids THEY are the ones that I’m there for NOT to earn a score or approval or mention or rank.    Growing up, I certainly wasn’t considered a “smart” kid by the teachers’ standards I taught myself strategies that I often got in trouble for because it wasn’t how they taught me to do it – forget my ability to figure something out, what mattered most is that I didn’t do it their way, the “right” way, so there was no value on my work.  I did what I had to do, enduring each day of NOT having my perfect paper hung on the board - school was NOT fun for meA T   A L L.    I’ll never forget, as long as I live, my sixth grade Social Studies teacher passing back tests calling us by our last name and holding our papers, scores facing out, large numbers marked in felt tip blood-red pen.  Yours truly had quite the lovely failing grade – humiliating doesn’t describe what he did to me that day and for many more to come – I was his target and became the target of my peers' finger pointing and giggling.  This is EXACTLY what the state is doing to kids, teachers, parents, and schools across the state and they seem to be enjoying it as much as that teacher & classmates did.  They’re telling kids that what they do each day, how hard they work to overcome struggles, the ingenuity they use to solve problems, the questions they come up with and inferences they make, their initiative to get up and come to school despite sadness or sickness doesn’t matter – one test, one snapshot, a block of seven hours on a test made by a for profit publishing company matters the most. 

These scores have forced great teachers to question what they do – an amazing friend and I had a conversation recently and afterward I found myself angry furious, not at her, but at what education has become - that an incredible teacher was questioning herself, her classroom, and the experiences and love she provides based on ludicrous testing practice.  Here’s the thing – do we put more emphasis on what happens every single day in a rich learning environment or into one snapshot, grueling test?  Do you care more about the score on my teaching boards or my philosophy on educating children and constantly pushing myself to be the best lead learner I can be?  Does it matter how well a child fills in bubbles and completes a test or that a child can take on a real world problem, persevere through it, and succeed?  Do you value kids working as a cooperative team, completing challenges beyond expectation or that they can compete with each other for test scores?   If that one test (that you can’t see and you will never know what the questions were) matters to you most, then I guess my classroom isn’t where your kid belongs. 

I provide rigor every single day and push my kids to solve problems in ways they never imagined (and sometimes the way I ever imagined!) and I never have to do it with a high stakes test – as I’ve said before I’m not a paper pusher or a test giver, but I evaluate amazing minds every single day.  When a child perseveres through a problem to the point of tears because she J U S T  W O N ‘ T  G I V E  U P and suddenly out of nowhere she looks up at you with a grin bigger than a Cheshire cat, leaps out of her chair with hands extended, fists pumping, and cheers “YES!!!!” – THAT’S worth evaluating, THAT’S worthy of time in my classroom, and THAT’S something that seems the high stakes testing initiative and politicians will never understand.
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Monday, August 5, 2013

S'more? I'm a bit of a rebel.

Which s’more in the picture above demonstrates the correct way to make the campfire treat?
  • a)    Crisp graham cracker with dark toasted marshmallow, a pile of creamy peanut butter, doused in milk chocolate chips
  • b)   Fudge stripe shortbread cookie with lightly toasted, gooey marshmallow
  • c)    Crisp graham cracker filled with slightly browned marshmallow and a tad melted Reese’s peanut butter cup
  • d)   None of the above. ….they all destroy the traditional integrity of the s’more recipe first published in the 1927 handbook, Tramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts.

Sounds silly, right?  But, think for a minute about your classroom and the way you approach teaching.  Is the focus on finding “the right” answers?  Should we follow the one series, worksheet, or basal everyone else does?  If an outcome is expected, is creativity to get there encouraged?

As the saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention”….well, when you’re in the middle of the Adirondack mountains, with the nearest town thirty minutes away, it’s easy to become inventive.   With family all visiting, we had the perfect fire going – glowing embers, low roar.  But as I grabbed the supplies for s’mores I quickly realized there were N-O   M-O-R-E  Hershey bars!!!  Crisis in the middle of nowhere!!!  Not one to cave or give up (and CERTAINLY not when a s’more is involved!) we began to brainstorm what we could do (giving up would mean impending mutiny!!) and that’s when our newest love was born….a gob of peanut butter drenched with milk chocolate chips nestled below a perfectly toasted marshmallow!   Had I been an “only one way” girl, we would have missed out.  Should we have gone with the test prep, widget mentality and simply given up because we couldn’t make the “correct s’more”?  Or were we right by collaborating and working together find not only one, but many ways to create new, exciting s’mores?  Since then it’s become a game of creativity to come up with as many possibilities as we can.  We sample new creations with neighbors and they share new ideas in return – crunched up Butterfingers, peppermint patties.  I’ve even had suggestions from students –ever heard of a “s’maco”?  The marriage of a soft shell taco, a bit of banana & peanuts and the mixings for s’mores lightly toasted and melty over a fire!  My niece’s newest fan favorite is the all-white s’more – with a big ol’ hunk of white chocolate! 

Teaching has now become public enemy #1 and we are under continual fire in the political battle with education (so easy to fire attacks when you’re not in the trenches!).  The Education Department in New York, as with many other states, has put significant pressure on teachers by linking state assessment scores to teacher evaluation.  I see really great teachers who are afraid of straying off the straight and narrow for fear of missing a sub-line of the curriculum while others aren’t willing to teach using proven, well known, reputable brain based research and have instead turned to test prep and traditional methods of information feeding learning.  Our state has “blessed” us with a website that basically gives a step by step, scripted implementation (including MINUTES for each part of the lesson!!!!) for curriculum in our classrooms.   It’s a beautifully, flawless model to producing amazingly, fantastic widgets.  What scares me is that there are many, many teachers who will use this as their bible, moving diligently line by line – for fear of not gaining points toward evaluation.  Hmmmm……which one of your kids do you think will come back to you in a few years with the best memory from your class being the time he/she worked on test prep? 

I’ve never been a page turner or a basal girl – I LOVE teamwork and working on the window seat, the floor, in the bathtub, gathered so tightly at a table you can’t fit a piece of paper between the kids and even for me, the move toward more inquiry learning needed fanning of the embers.    It was challenging and had growing pains – but I dug my heels in, I turned my back on the panic, and refused to do any test prep…..I was often heard saying I was doing “life prep” NOT test prep.  Okay, full disclosure… I showed them how to circle each answer in the lengthy test booklet and then fill in a bubble using my SmartBoard…..yep, T-H-A-T   W-A-S   I-T.  I wanted these kids to learn how to question and wonder – how to look at a “solution” and find another way around to an answer.  Last year, as I watched my kids blossom and bloom into thinkers, readers, questioners, and lovers of learning I knew in my heart what I was doing WAS right – many times they would BOO! me when we had to go to lunch or a special!  I’m also not a huge worksheet girl……we use “learning logs” to keep a record of our learning – I can prove every ounce of curriculum we do in one neat book.  My room looks and feels different, but every child knows there is a T O N of accountability in our team and appreciate the responsibility they have. When we debriefed after the assessments, one of my kids said, “Well THAT was a waste of time.  We have too much learning to do to spend time on some test!”  Out of the mouths of babes……God, I love my job!

Truthfully, I won’t weaken a child’s belief in themselves or intrinsic love of and zest for learning for a score on a snapshot test – may be foolish on my part, but that’s a chance I’ll take.   I’ll spend my time with inquiry learning and digging deep into discovering, in hands on mathematical real-world activities, and seeing kids snuggling up with a good, stimulating book that they can talk about and challenge each other with.   What if we changed the way we approach teaching so the kids took the seed we planted and ran with it? I don’t mean ditch everything – use the curriculum & even a basal if you have to, but use it as a guide, NOT something to confine or define how you go about teaching or the kids go about learning.  What if we take more of a “lead learner” approach and your goal was to guide the kids toward that intrinsic love of learning?  If you planted the seed, based on your curriculum, and fanned the flame to spark the kids’ interest what would happen?  If you give them everything to run with and boundaries are clearly set, what’s the worst that can happen? What if we give up control of what “right” is to let our kids discover new ways to do the same old things?  What if……the kids came up with a whole new way to make a s’more that didn’t look like what was expected, but they were engaged, and excited, and interested……what if?????

((And if you’re wondering……I took one for the team……yes, I ate all three s’mores after the photo was taken!!!))

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