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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