Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Ocean poem

As a teacher-learner, I want to grow as a writer in my own right. My Teach Write writing group set an "ocean poem" challenge inspired by the the book Write the Poem. Here is mine.

Ocean Edges

Scabbed, freckle-speckled knees
off Pop-Pop's dock as
blue-brown crabs scutter
inches below my toes
in the sandy shallows.

Sure, not far from here 
is a fathomless deep,
breaching whales,
a school of gray fish,
a shark on the hunt, even.

But, near here
is a just a ten-year-old me,
and a place where enormous things
quiet and still.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The Right to Write

Tonight I sit at my computer attempting to write words about being a teacher. Ideas. Suggestions. Solutions. Strategies. And yet, I just came off of a day steeped in chaos, struggles, and mistakes.

In the first two hours of my day I asked myself what must have been 100 questions, second-guesses, and challenges. Here are just few:

  • Did I receipt these field trip forms?
  • He hit again. What should I say to help reset the morning?
  • This student has been absent for over a week. He looks so tired. How can I help him adjust this morning?
  • She's refusing to join in Morning Meeting greeting. What should I say to model compassion but set high expectations for how we treat each other?
  • Why does she do this?
  • How can I be proactive tomorrow? And how can I remember to remember to be proactive tomorrow? 
  • How can I better engage students during the writing mini-lesson? 
  • She's still forgetting spaces between her words. What should we try today?
  • She's refusing to join the group again. What should I do?
  • They are arguing about who is touching who. I'm trying to teach a phonics lesson. Should I stop? Ignore it?

How can I sit down at the end of a day like this and write? Write about my ideas, my suggestions, my solutions and strategies. Do I even have any? Some days, like today, my shelves seem rather bare.

Self doubt creeps in. Who am I to write about being a teacher?

A teacher. That's who.

I've been there. I am there. I'm going back there tomorrow.
I can share my mistakes. I can share what I learn from what goes wrong, and I can share when it goes a little better the next time. I can't share perfection. And I can't wait for perfection to share.

And I don't just give. I take. I take and take and take. I take from the other teachers making mistakes, asking questions, second guessing choices, and re-conceiving challenges. And I don't ask for perfection from them.

I've made a deal with myself that I will be forgiving. Forgiving of my own faults and flaws. I will put myself out there because I want to be in community with my fellow teachers. I love us so much. I love what we are doing. What we believe we can achieve, even if we all know we set our sights unrealistically high. 

Tonight I'll write even though it was a messy day. I'll write even though my mini-lesson didn't land. I'll write even though we had to put a lot of work into showing kindness. I'll write even though one student's challenges seemed too big for the love I could give in one day.
I'll write. And I'll come back tomorrow.

Because I don't have to be perfectly right to write.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

When Nonreaders Read

What makes a reader? 

When does one cross over from nonreader to reader? Earn the badge of honor?

What if there was no such thing as a nonreader?

What if, and stay with me here, holding a book is all it takes to make one A READER. Upside-down.
Closed. Chewed on a little. One’s first interaction with a book is the moment she becomes a reader.

We know from research that learning through shared reading experiences starts when parents read to
their children. These experiences, even before children are speaking, are developing vocabulary,
building background knowledge, and crafting “book” knowledge, such as how a book is held, how to
turn the pages, etc. Most importantly, early shared reading experiences provide a child with a reading
role model and condition her to associate reading with pleasure. As Jim Trelease wrote in
Why Read Aloud to Children, “We read aloud to children for the same reasons we talk with them: to
reassure; entertain; bond; inform; arouse curiosity; and inspire.” 

Why then are we as teachers cautious about putting books in the hands of those deemed as
“non-readers”? When the truth of the matter is that building positive experiences with books is crucial
to the development of all readers. "If a child seldom experiences the “pleasures” of reading and increasingly meets its “unpleasures,” the natural reaction will be withdrawal" (Trelease,
Why Read Aloud to Children).

Everyday our whole Kindergarten class spends 15 minutes on Read by Myself. This is in addition to
the time spent on Read by Myself during workshop. This is a shared, all-in, everyone-reads time with
a collection of self-selected books. 

No levels. 

No assigned books.

No computer interventions.

And if you walked around my kindergarten classroom during Read to Myself and just watched,
you’d be at a loss as to who’s in the Level A or Level H Guided Reading group. All you’d see is
readers. Readers sitting in plastic mini-rockers. Readers sprawled out on their bellies. Readers
curled up in a giant papasan. Books are open. Pages are being turned. Some whispered voices
and not-so-whispered voices punctuate the quiet as children point out interesting pictures, trade
books, or call out about an exciting part. You would notice some students tracing text with their fingers
and others carefully observing the pictures. You’ll notice some not-so carefully observing the pictures,

And they are all readers.

Everyone one of these children is experiencing a book as a reader. I think it’s important that we teachers don’t let our definition of reader and, by proxy, nonreader label our students and their reading practices. Allowing every student time to read, whatever that looks like, is key to developing into full-fledged read-the-words reader by building positive experiences with books for every student.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Jumping in

Last week I attended the Picturing History Retreat put on by GCSS and GaDOE. Matt de la Peña, author of The Last Stop on Market StreetCarmella's Wishes, and many other great books now on now Want to Read Goodreads list, taught a break out writing session.  He read us the poem, Poetry Should Ride the Bus by Ruth Foreman and challenged us to write our own versions.

In an effort to jump into the deep end, to write, and share my writing, (which I must admit I could not will myself to do in the workshop when he asked if anyone would share... At the time, I was just proud I made myself walk into the Creative Writing Workshop session! It's much easier to think about writing and how I wish I had more time for it than to do it, huh? Damn you, Summer, and all your time!) so here is mine:

Poetry Should Push You in the Deep End

Poetry should splash
while I
dangle my feet in the water
on the edge of the pool
wetting my hair and getting in my eyes

Poetry should call out
"Come play!"
before plunging under the surface
water churning with waves
my eyes searching until I stand
to get a better look

Poetry should burst out
with a splash
and a laugh
water streaming down
looks like
such fun

Poetry should tread water
while I climb down two rungs
Dipping a toe in the cool water
shaking my head

Poetry should reach out
a sly look
we both know her plan
grab my hand
and yank me into in the
deep end

I'll pop up
kicking wildly to stay afloat

I'll calm down
tread water
circle slowly
grasp the edge of the pool

Poetry should swim over
with a smile
shake like a dog
spraying my face with water
then tap me on the shoulder
and yell,
"You're it!"

Monday, March 4, 2019

Do I Have To...?

When I sit back and think about it, I see that I am more like my students every day. Like them, I love recess, giggle at fart jokes, always want just 5 more minutes with my book, and think "because I said so" isn't a good enough reason to do something I don't want to do.

As I watch state, district, and school regulations increase in volume, I've noticed that the explanations for the procedures put in place get more and more vague. "It's our process," "Evidence has shown," and simply, "it's an expectation," are some of the lines we tend to get in response to the question: Why?

But, why is it our process? What evidence shows this? Whose expectation? These questions get little clarification.

The more I ask these questions, the more I come across to be dissentious. And maybe I am, a little. But mostly I question because I care and want to know. I ask because I take great pains to research, experiment, and observe the results of the pedagogical decisions I make in my classroom. Is it unreasonable to ask the same of those who are making decisions I'm required to implement?

Kids, lucky for them, are less trained in the art of subversive questioning. When they come across a task that they don't understand and don't want to do, it comes out in the much bolder form of "Ugh. Do I have to?"

What responses do I seek when I ask, essentially, Ugh (implied). Do I have to? 
I don't want to inspire frustration or distrust.
I am not demonstrating an inability or a laziness.
I am not trying to undermine another's authority.
I'm not trying to get out of doing work.

I just want to know why so that I may make sense of what I'm being asked to do and feel autonomy in my work.

So mustn't the same be true for my students? Don't they deserve a genuine answer to the question?
I didn't have to wait long for my theory to be put to the test. Earlier this week I'd introduced a task, explained the directions, was ready to get students started, and I heard, "Do we have to do this?"

My typical response would have been an patented teacher-look, an exasperated-sympathetic combo, or I'd have gone existential with "Everything we do is a choice, we don't have to do anything", or, if I was flustered, a simple, "Yes, you do." I'd have been a little irritated that whatever I'd worked to plan had been blown off track. I'd have been distracted and trying to get back to the clearly laid out sequence of events in my own head. And I'd be just a little be resentful of the student, wondering why he is unwilling to do what I so clearly know is a good learning experience. Is he being lazy? Trying to start trouble or derail the class?

And isn't all that, on some level, what I'm experiencing?

So this time I said, "No. Not at all. Here's what I was going for..." I walked over to the student and explained the task and its purpose. I told him, with no hint of sarcasm or irritation, that he could do something else that achieved the goals I had in mind. I was careful not to present false choices by offering some terrible alternative (another method I've tried before) or make an alternative sound like punishment. I genuinely didn't have an alternative in mind, but I told him there was certainly other ways to accomplish the same goals.

He considered me for a second, shrugged and said, "Ok. I'll do this."

Now, look, we all know I got off easy on this one, right? But it was a start. He just wanted to know why. And why shouldn't he?

My students don't want to blindly follow any more than I do. Like me, they probably aren't against what they're being asked to do, unless it contradicts what they believe to be valuable. And when that's truly the case, when the task that is asked of my students or of me isn't in sync with our values, is it too much to ask for that task to be reconsidered?

In light of this realization, I am going to pay it forward. To treat my students as I hope to be treated: With genuine consideration to tasks that cause push-back. With other options for tasks that they don't wanna do. With patience and compassion for the impulse to ask why. And with a funny fart joke every now and then.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

With Fidelity

Fidelity. One definition of this word, the one I most associated with it until quite recently, is faithfulness in a relationship. More recently, as the word started being thrown around in response to questions I posed at school, I've found that a second meaning is conformity to a standard. Ah.

Synonyms include: loyalty, adherence, and precision
Antonyms are: wavering, nonconformity, and, get this, treachery

As our systems buy in to the one-size-fits-all (all teachers, all classes, all students, all time) curriculums, we begin to hear class to implement these programs and lessons "with fidelity". Always with the caveat of "make it your own" and "we trust your judgement".

But can both really be true?

Isn't a decision to implement a universal, daily regimented, scripted (whether loosely or exactly) program a call for conformity? And isn't the appeal that it be done "with fidelity" a warning against any form of divergence from the program?

One cannot be both unique and uniform. Accommodating and standardized. Flexible and steadfast.

And which do we really want?

To buck the system is to take on great personal risk. Not to mention to have the audacity to question it aloud. Teachers will, of course, lament the discomfort of these confines to each other and will often break out of the barriers behind closed doors. But to say it aloud is really tough. Oh, so you know better than a team of experts and researchers? You can come up with something better than this beautifully packaged resource? Your teaching is going to get better results in testing? No one is saying this directly to me, except the voice in my head, but I hear it still in the insistence for fidelity. They know better than you. Just do as you're told. Trust the program.

Last week I came across a blog post from Regie Routman from nearly 11 years ago that said, "Rather than fidelity to a program or specialist, we teachers need to have fidelity to the child."

And this is it, isn't it? Asking to deviate from the script is not me saying I know better about writing or math or reading. I'm not denying the creator's expertise in her field. I'm not saying the lessons aren't researched and, in parts, valuable. But I do know more than the program creators about one thing, my students.

My choice to put them first, to make them the driving force in my curriculum, isn't arrogance. It's loyalty, adherence, and precision. It's faithfulness in the relationship between teacher and student.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Dumping a Science Test

In 14 years of teaching I've seen many practices change. Many for the better. Some for the worse. One pattern that has remained consistent is the end of unit test. Or assessment if you want to sound fancy and quiz if you want to sound chill.

It's all the same though, right? We finish up teaching a topic or set of skills, then we do something to see if the students did, in fact, learn said topic or set of skills. Some of them will, some won't. Observant, student-centered classroom teachers will already know who's ready and who isn't. We will modify the test ahead so it's more reflective of what skills a student is prepared to demonstrate. We will reflect with them afterwards, celebrate what they do know, and set up plans for continued practice and instruction where needed.

I've done and still do these things. But I'm not confident that I should be and I'm not entirely sure what I should be doing about it.

As mandated school, county, and state standardized testing has increased, I've pulled back a lot on my classroom tests. One reason is, frankly, there's not enough time. With the increase in volume of required, time-consuming tests (most of which take 60-75 minutes to administer), less time is leftover for actual teaching, not to mention assessing, of skills within the classroom. In addition, the value placed on the results of mandated tests over classroom assessments makes it difficult to justify time and energy to implement my own tests. Especially when those results will not be taken into much consideration in the long run. Why ask the teacher what the student knows if a computer can generate that answer for you?

And, finally, I just don't like tests.

The term popped up as I was cruising my Twitter feed this past week (and I'd love to cite the owner but I can't seem to find it again, my apologies). The phrase was "brain dump". The original writer described it as students writing down everything they know about a topic as a replacement for a multiple choice or essay assessment of skills.

On Thursday I floated this idea to my 4th graders as we reached the end of our study on Planets and Stars in Science class. I said, "When I give you a test, all I'm trying to do is see what you know from our work on a topic." Yeah, yeah... "But the way I usually do that is by asking you a question and seeing if you know that exact piece of information. You may know many other things but you might not know the one thing I ask. And that doesn't seem like the best way to understand what you know, now that I think about it." Uh huh. Go on. "So what if we tried this thing called a Brain Dump? I'll give you one sheet of big paper and 15 minutes, and you use pictures, words, or phrases to demonstrate what you know about our topic."

You mean we write whatever we know?
We can use pictures?
We get to decide what goes on it?
This will be our test?

"Yeah. You guys in?"

They were.

The next day we got out our science notebooks in which we'd been recording research and shared activities, a pencil, and a sheet of big paper (about 8.5" by 20"). For ambiance, I put on a space instrumental YouTube scene. And I set the timer for 15 minutes.

I really had no idea what to expect, but the kids were fired up. We started with 2 minutes of fast and furious writing, at that point I shouted out a "word blast", dropping a vocabulary term that had come up in our studies as a prod or reminder about something they may have forgotten. I gave them 4 other "word blasts" throughout the time block. At 5 minutes and 12 minutes, they got a "1 minute peek" where they could open their resource notebooks for a reminder or a new idea they hadn't thought of yet. At the 10-minute mark, I gave them a 2-minute "check in with a friend". During that 2 minute window, they could jump up and collaborate with someone else in the room.

They worked until the timer went off, put their pencils down, and automatically started sharing their Brain Dump sheets with neighbors. Exclamations of "I got that, too!" and "Oh man! I forgot all about that. I can't believe I didn't think of it!" floated around the room.

I have one particular student who shuts down in response to any given test. He will leave it blank or simply never submit his paper or online test. Any prodding or support during the test receives a shrug and an "I don't know" but little else. His Brain Dump had a beautifully drawn version of the solar system complete with craters (correctly labeled with the term) on the moon, rings on Saturn, and lines to indicate Uranus's irregular rotation. And, most significantly, a big smile on his face at the end of the period.

This wasn't a perfect assessment. I am not sure if anything is. I think the time limit made it fun and a little exciting, but certainly limited the results and disadvantaged those who work more slowly. By implementing a time limit, I certainly can't claim to have a demonstration of all each student knows. And I'm not entirely sure how to grade it. Or if I even want to.

Why devalue any of this work by scoring it and thus ranking it against others?

So I probably won't. Instead I'll write a note to each student, recognizing his/her knowledge demonstrated by the Brain Dump and encouraging further research in 1-2 particular areas.

This is what always happens to me and is the concrete reminder that I don't do well administering tests, scores, and grades to my learners. I prefer to end Social Studies units with Socratic Seminars and role play discussions (my favorites come from the Zinn Education Project). I take notes on their engagement, thoughtful comments, and questions, but can never bring myself to calculate a score. And don't even get me started on projects! Students create work that they are so deeply proud of, that reflect what they've learned, or attempted to express and somehow the rubrics I meticulously made end up in the trash.

My question now is, do we really need the test? If we can create classrooms where learning occurs for the sake of learning, rather than to pass a test, wouldn't that ultimately be better? And if my current reality of local and state testing aren't going anywhere, then wouldn't my best shot of creating that kind of learning atmosphere be to eliminate tests within my classroom?

Ocean poem

As a teacher-learner, I want to grow as a writer in my own right. My Teach Write writing group set an "ocean poem" challenge insp...