Tuesday, January 22, 2013

TK- Parent Rant

It's 7:30 pm and I think that the homework is done. Every day a page of math and a page of reading, plus required reading for AR.  That leaves little time for pleasure reading, but we always end the day with pleasure reading together, side-by-side before we fall asleep. It certainly leaves little time for writing.  Tonight is different.

 As I prep for tomorrow, my 8 year-old comes up to me and asks if I have any books on how to get better at writing, "You know how to have similes and other things." 

Hmm, this comes out of the blue. I have a ton of books on the teaching of writing.  These books are not the ones that she is looking, of course.  She is always writing---zombie dialogues, to-do lists, blogging and journaling, but never a request for "studying writing." I dig a little deeper. 
     "Why do you want that?"  
     "Well, tomorrow is a big test."

The only big test I foresee in her future are the two state mandated-tests for reading and math that she will take in April.  

She tells me, "I am a 2 and I want to get a 5."  "Well, "I should be a 3." 

"Oh," I respond nonchalantly seething inside realizing that these are the monthly district-mandated practice writing tests foisted upon everyone to make sure that writing matters. I guess if we monitor it, they must get better.

I tell her that the way to get better at writing is to actually write and she can do that on her blog or on paper. I tell her not to worry about spelling. I tell her that she should write about cats something she knows everything about, cats. She tells me that type of writing, cats, isn't for school.  All of this is heart-breaking and I am tired, getting ready to help other people's kids.  

I was honest. I told her the test didn't matter. She won't take the writing test this year and I won't let her take it next year.  Nothing in her folder that comes home every week tells me that her teacher is preparing for  writing instruction.  My favorite writing teacher was her 1st grade teacher and her kindergarten teacher. She hasn't had decent writing instruction since 1st grade. All that we care about is reading and math. I love her current teacher as a reading instructor. She understands balance. When I visited her class as I as a book fairy, 100% of the students loved reading and were engaged.   Reading and math are the most important subjects this year. Writing is a peripheral subject, except on district mandated progress monitoring days.

I can accept many things about public education. I will not accept defining my 3rd grader as a two using a rubric designed for 4th graders, a rubric created for a test over a year away.  

Check out her blog today at FannyTwoBoots

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Holding the Power of Your Work

In a world where educators are asked to do more and more with little and are lambasted in the news, I wanted to honor the amazing work that the educators in my community are accomplishing, especially their efforts this past weekend in my slice.  I am privileged to wake up every day and work with them and am proud of their bravery to try something a little bit different.
One of my favorite articles of the week to share at the beginning the year with my freshmen students is this one Back to School: Toughest Test of All is 9th Grade.  I love teaching freshman and often remark that I am 14 on the inside which is why I enjoy teaching this grade level. I could teach any grade, but it is by far my favorite. Freshmen are optimistic and full of hope. I have taught freshman at three radically different schools and all of the freshmen brought hope to school.  They have a vision of where they see themselves in 4 years regardless of their past. It's exciting! You can work with hope. It is an energy if sustained grows exponentially. Sadly though for many reasons as outlined in the article above and others as I have discovered, freshmen do lose hope and then we are in danger of losing them. As reading coach and English teacher at a school of over 3000 students, I have come to the conclusion that academic issues that freshman struggle with are a bit bigger than just one teacher and needed to be addressed by a community, hence our "freshman intervention."

I've spent at least three years trying to organizing a systematic process for dealing with freshmen who struggle, first with teachers, then with the small leadership team in my SLC, and finally this year with the entire SLC leadership team.  We have taken small steps forward and missteps backward, but this year our team has had an amazing power surge. An energy they will be able to sustain after the success of our work on Saturday with our "New Year, New You" parent-student workshop. It is one in a series of events that we have organized this year to address the freshmen academic issues at our school.  The success was due to the commitment of every administrator and guidance counselor as well as the teachers, staff members and students who graciously gave up their Saturday to make a difference Each person who volunteered felt the power of their service and it was evident in their parent-student responses that our work mattered.  It wasn't a perfectly orchestrated event, but for the students and parents who showed up we have made a difference.  

You have a small window to capture freshman before they give up and our intervention has pried that window up a little wider. I love that members of our SLC leadership team has been able to brave the possibilities with me this month, not only for them, but our community, especially our students..
I will post the timeline and resources for others who are interested on my blog on Thursday this week.  

Monday, January 14, 2013

It's Monday: What R U Rdg? STEAMPUNK

    It is Monday! What Are You Reading is originally hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.
 Jen and Kellee at 
Teach Mentor Texts host a kidlit and YA version as well. 
The word steampunk might be unfamiliar to you.  Maybe you already know and love that genre. It is one of my discoveries at ALAN 2012 conference this year culminating in my completion of Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan trilogy this past week.  Steampunk blends the world of steam-age industrialization plus fantasy to yield an alternative history or world.  If you have read Westerfeld's Uglies series, you already know that he  masterfully crafts a world in the future, but the Leviathan series takes you to the beginning of WWI, a world of Clankers vs. Darwinists.

The narrative switches back and forth between Midshipman "Dylan" Sharp and the young Austrian-Hungarian Empire heir on the run, Alek. Both of whom carry secrets. Their paths intertwine and the adventure never seems to stop as the Leviathan travels across Europe, into the Ottoman Empire, over Russian and Japan and finally to America. You will recognize characters such as Tesla, Randolph Hurst, Pancho Villa, and Winston Churchill who have stepped out of your history books.  Both the Darwinist fabricated beasts such as Leviathan, Borvil, and Imperial Eagles, and Clanker's machines such as the Walkers, Hercules and Beowulf, will amaze you. {That link contains spoilers.}Westerfeld also deftly handles women's issues as well as embeds the language of the time takes you back to 1914. If you can get your students past the length of the books, perhaps by reading aloud, you will hook them.

When I think about historical fiction, the 20th century and YA, I can bring up several titles set during WWII, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights movement, but few about WW I, which is one reason why the Leviathan series stands out for me. I would describe it as an action-packed guy book, but female students would like it as well since it has a strong female central character. Obviously, you might pick it for a social studies class, but the description of Leviathan and its inner-workings of the ship and fabricated animals might fit well with a biology class. As an English teacher, I might use it a lit circle set with The Odyssey.  It is one of the books that I like to put in kids' hands.  They read the first and then have two more on their "Reading Next" list.  It is also one of those series that I hate to get to the end. I've certainly grown fond of Mr. Sharp, Alex, and Borvil.

I even recommend this series for adults.  I passed it along to an adult who had read the entire Master and Commander series by Patrick O'Brian. He enjoys historical fiction about naval battles, but he also enjoys young adult fantasy novels.  I thought that the Leviathan series married the two well.  I am also thinking about handing it off to our ROTC teachers at our school since it combines war-fare, leadership, and problem-solving.

To learn more about the origins of steam punk, check out this blog. Steampunkscholar

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

One Word: Brave

Perhaps you have heard of One Little Word, a writing, creative and\or spiritual process of focusing on one little word for a year.  When Lee Ann asked me to consider doing Ali Edwards One Little Word workshop, I readily accepted the idea.  Its focus on writing and creativity would push me outside of my comfort zone. I have learned so much from the challenges I have embraced this year, both self-inflicted and presented to me.

 I started Camp Gladiator, a physical challenge, and continue to surprise myself at each workout. I have dropped six minutes off my 5K time and can do real push-ups, at least 20.  The Slice of Life Writing Challenge pushed me personally and professionally as a writer.  I don't aspire to write; I'd always rather read than do anything else. To grow as a teacher, I needed to dig deep where I felt uncomfortable to be better for my students. It worked! I felt the power of my words, publishing, and getting genuine feedback.  I was able to bring this experience to my students in our own slice challenge.  I acted out politically by working on a task force that made an impact on a local and state level.  As a teacher, I often felt disenfranchised by the political process, but working with a community of people--parents, teachers, students and school board members-- around an issue reminded me that my experience and actions matter to the community at-large. I saw why my voice mattered.  I opened my identity as a TI and began to work as an advocate by participating in the Big Blue Test and took other actions which reminded me that my work mattered to a community beyond my reach.

In hindsight, these steps were brave, but they weren't intentionally brave.  My focus this year is to act intentionally around one word, 12 intentions that will inspire action, and see what happens. My word is brave.  Each month I have a brave intention and this month I will be brainstorming my actions to attach to each.

 I intend to:
  • Brave the possibilities!
  • Brave the heart!
  • Brave the silence!
  • Brave the storm!
  • Brave the challenge!
  • Brave the world!
  • Brave the wild!
  • Brave the unknown! 
  • Brave the adventure!
  • Brave the impossible! 
  • Brave the limits! 
  • Brave the reflection! 
What do you intend to brave this year?

Just write about one word today: http://oneword.com/
Read about it http://myoneword.org/

Monday, January 7, 2013

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

      It is Monday! What Are You Reading is originally hosted by Sheila at Book Journey. Jen and Kellee at Teach Mentor Texts host a kidlit and YA version as well. 

Seven days after New Year's resolutions have been made and\or broken is a perfect time to share what I am reading! Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath & Dan Heath is the book you need today when resolution and goal setting abounds, not just personally, but for us, professionally, with our students.  I would declare it to be the book that had the most profound impact on me in 2012, as a teacher, leader, and learner.  Is this a book for teens? Absolutely! When I think about engaging nonfiction such as Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers or Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation that I have enjoyed with students, I would add this title. I see this book fitting well into a physical education course or psychology course too.

My big aha was that teachers are change agents! We ask kids to make changes every day as readers, writers, and learners.  Often we feel frustrated when they don't.  You won't, however, find this book under areas traditionally classified educational professional reading.  Although Switch is classified under business management, it provides insight to help you be a better agent of change in not only your classroom, but also in your life.  According to Heath and Heath, the big idea related to change that sticks, is that you have to influence not only the environment, but the hearts and the minds by directing the rider, motivating the elephant and sharing the path.

The Heaths shares Jonathan Haidts' analogy of two sides that work concurrently in people, the emotional side, the Elephant, and the rationale side, the Rider.   For change to happen, the Rider is in need of planning and direction and that is what a leader or teacher can bring to students.  The Rider is the thinker or planner who can help you plot a course, but is also in danger of getting caught up in what I describe as "paralysis by analysis" or over-thinking. The Rider carefully supervises the change. To avoid exhausting the Rider, the Rider needs to understand why it matters.  In my classroom, I share the research with kids about my instructional choices.  It lets them know the logic of my decisions. The Rider also needs to be connected. Perhaps in teaching, the personal learning network (PLN) or the Professional Learning Community (PLC) are the supports that help the Rider enact change. That is only one part of the process as the Elephant must be nurtured as well.

When I think about teaching, the heart or the Elephant signifies the power of relationships in our classrooms.  That adage that kids have to care before they will learn, applies here.  The teacher must inspire the Elephant The Heaths believe that the Elephant supplies the crucial energy needed to negotiate the ambiguity that change often brings. Elephants lead the charge.

As you consider Haidts' analogy and the Heaths' interpretation, ask yourself who are your riders and elephants? As individuals, we don't act with balance here. Listen to your students and listen to yourself. What are you?  Are you providing enough support for changes to happen in your students?  Are you getting the support for the Rider and Elephant within needed to make change. Of course, you don't stop here! Where are you going?

Sharing the path is a crucial step.  Where you want to go and how you aim to get there matter.  To share the path, people need a specific goal and an understanding of why it matters. When people set goals, the most successful set behavioral goals. The Heaths believe that the key here is to change your big ideas into specific behaviors that will point to a destination. To figure it out, you must ask yourself questions. How will you know when the change is happening or has happened? What are the tangible signs? This visioning is an important step in the process. If you don't know where you are going and what it might look like when you get there, you will have a hard time establishing the path.  Time spent developing timelines and planning for milestones work here.  You will spend more time upfront building it, but it is a template or a path to follow that can be revisited and re-visioned and your success may hinge upon it.

Remember knowledge alone doesn't change behavior.  So just reading my response or the book itself, won't help you make the changes.  Practice matters too, which a read of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers will reinforce. But you and your students must have ample opportunities to approximate or practice without punishment according to Brian Cambourne's Conditions for Learning.  Making change is exhausting.  I don't offer this as a reason to give up, but more so as a reason to be more gentle or forgiving with yourself  and more patient with your students as you work together to make changes this year.

P.S. I have more to share about this book, but am saving it for another posting!