Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Writing versus Blogging

            Writing has always felt like a solitary process.  Of course, the outcome is shared and sometimes even the process is debated and fine tuned, but really once the piece has been written, it is done.  When you blog about something, rather than just write about it, the written piece is merely a “midpoint” a place to rest on the path, but not the destination.  This is important to understand as I think of how to sell the idea of the usefulness of a blog to my parents.  I don’t need to sell the idea to my students for even last year, when I had just a classroom blog, they begged to be allowed to share on it.  I foolishly didn’t let them.  Now, however, we are going out into official blog territory and so I need the  parents to come along and support this journey.  It is therefore vital that they understand that the blog is not just a way to put writing up on the Internet but rather is a whole different way of writing.
            The main point for me in considering a student created blog is because they need to write for an actual audience.  Not just their classmates who hardly ever given them honest or even constructive feedback.  I am sick of the days of, “That’s really great.”  It is not that I want to feed my students to the wolves through their writing but rather that their writing needs to become an ever-shifting process, something they revisit and reflect upon, thus deepening their connection to it.   By adding the potential for the voice of others; other students, parents, other classrooms, my voice as the teacher becomes just one of many and that is a wonderful thing as well.  They are not writing for me anymore but for themselves to produce something that they can be proud of to share with the world.  I do not determine how long it must be, as long as the effort is there.  However, how do you define, or even worse, asses effort?  Through a blog you can see the effort put in when students choose to partake in the dialogue that has risen from their writing.  No longer static, but an ever-changing idea, molded perhaps by many and owned by even more.  That is the difference between writing and blogging for me.

Go in There and Earn an Oscar - 10 Myths for New Teachers

Image from here 

As a new crop of teachers are slowly being introduced via email by my principal, I thought about what I was told in college about what to do as a new teacher.  And then I thought about how horrible some of that advice was.  So here is my top ten of new teacher myths - feel free to add more, I know they are out there!

Myth 1:  Children are only learning when they are quiet and focused on the teacher.
Reality:  So we all know this one isn't true, right?  Well, maybe not at first.  I thought if students were too noisy they couldn't hear the most important person; me.  Come to find out that often it is through these "disruptive" student conversations that deeper learning takes place.  So of course you must talk, but be brief and get to the point; simply put,  get out of the way of the learning.

Myth 2:  As a new teacher, you should never send a student to the principal's office. because it shows weakness.
Reality:   Your principal is your liaison so use them if needed, trust me, they do not keep a tally of which teacher sends more students to their office (I hope).  Realize though, that when you do send a student to the office, the outcome of the situation is no longer your choice, so if you want to have a hand in  it, then engage the principal in a conversation with the student, rather than just a referral to the office.  My first year I had a very temperamental student that scared the other children, when things got heated both of us needed a moment to breathe and gather our emotions; the principal helped us with that.

Myth 3:  Never ask for help but if you must, do so in private.
Reality:  Always ask for help, big or small!  My first year, I was so petrified that people would think my hiring was a mistake because I did not have all the answers.  Well, guess what?  No one has all the answers and hopefully they never will.   When you approach someone and ask for help you are showing trust and through trust you build community.  And that sense of community can carry you through many years of teaching.

Myth 4:  Listen, but do not talk, during staff meetings.
Reality:  I am a perpetually hand raiser, there, I admit it.  And I am also one of those people that always has an opinion.  While I don't recommend turning staff meetings into your one-person show, if you have a question or god forbid, an opinion, then share it.  You might be surprised the discussion that ensues because of something you said.  Successful staff meetings rely on discussion so become a partner in that, not just a fly on the wall.  

Myth 5:  Take a break from school/professional development your first year since you will be so busy.
Reality:  I know college is hard, I worked all the way through while going to school full-time, it was tough!  And the first year of teaching is even tougher but that does not mean you should stop learning.  Check out what professional development your district offers or better yet create a PLN so that whenever you have time you can be engaged in conversation with educators from all over the world.  Model for your students what a true lifelong learner looks like by becoming one yourself.  

Myth 6:  Show up at all extracurriculur activities your students participate in.
Reality:  I know students love to see us outside of school and I love to see my students as well but it is okay to say no once in a while.  Between piano recitals, dance performances, football games and basketball events, my first year I hardly ever saw my husband, my family, or my friends.  I was so busy seeing everybody else, even though I already saw the kids in school all day.  So pick a couple of events; I always go to whatever my school puts on and see almost all of my kids in one swoop.  Besides, if you pick one student's event then you have to go to as many as possible and that can be exhausting if you have 27 students.   So yes, they love to see you out in the real world but don't forget to keep your own life, after all, that's what makes you interesting!

Myth 7:  Work through your breaks to show you are serious.
Reality:  There is nothing more serious than a first year teacher, always rushing about, eating lunch in the hallway while helping their students with that extra bit of work.  I did it, and I still do it, but give up your breaks in moderation.  Going to the teacher's lounge may seem like a silly event but it is where I have had some of my most meaningful conversations and also developed actual friendships with other teachers.  I always have frequent flyers, kids that do not turn in their homework so they want to stay in and do it during recess with you.  Imagine the shock on their face if you tell them, "No, today that is not an option."  It might even help them realize that homework is work we do at home.   And who says teachers don't also need a break once in a while?

Myth 8:  Don't try too many new things.
Reality:  I am an idea person.  I see inspiration in random places and get so excited to do/share/tell them that I am about to burst.  Yet I was told repeatedly to not put too much on my plate, after all this was my first year of teaching.  So I was bored and uninspiring.  Busy, well sure, we all are but it wasn't necessarily with stuff I wanted to be involved in.  If you have dreams or crazy ideas, do it, get involved with the school and get others involved too.    

Myth 9:  Model/scaffold/show everything you will expect students to do. 
Reality:   I am not against modeling, scaffolding or showing, but have found that often students like a challenge.  So instead of showing them the whole process, tell them the goal, give them a beginning and let them discover.  Learning is after all a long journey into discovery.

Myth 10:  You must be/act happy at all times or go in there an earn an Oscar.  
Reality:    Students respond to human beings, and in particular genuine human beings.  While I do not recommend teaching in a foul mood it is okay to be mellow, as long as you explain why this is.  The explanation, of course, depends on the grade level you teach.  So if you are having a sad day or you are really excited about something - share it!  This is how meaningful connections are made because you show them that you care enough to trust them with your real life.  Maybe they will trust you then too.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Hidden Rules of a Classroom

Today I lost my temper, yes, it is a rare occurrence, but it happened on the phone with a credit report company who claimed that I had signed up for their monthly services.  I had not and had to cancel my debit card because of this.  The Indian woman I spoke to kept telling me that the fee was right in the terms and conditions section of the site and that I therefore had signed up for it.  No matter what I told her she was relentless in her explanation.  I finally lost it and yelled that i would like to speak to someone in charge and who could help me since I had never seen their terms and conditions, let alone signed up for them.

This incident made me think about the hidden rules of our classrooms.  Sure ,we post rules and expectations, short and to the point, on our walls and expect our students to agree to follow them.  What we don't post though, are our hidden rules and expectation, the terms and conditions if you will, for being in our classroom.  And those tend to be the most important rules.

I have pet peeves I call them, they include sharpening your pencil while someone is talking (me), waving your hand in someone's (my) face to get attention, interrupting someone (me), not cleaning up after yourself, and not taking responsibility for missed/late work.  I try to divulge these in the first few days of school and yet there are always some that I miss.  Every year, I end up being internally disappointed by the actions of a student who really had no way of knowing that taking off their shoes really bothers me (it is unsanitary).

So, at the end of this year I asked my students to write about what they wish they had known at the beginning of the year.  Much to my surprise, Mrs. Ripp's pet peeves came out on top.  Wow!  I had no idea that this was something important in the eyes of my students.  So this year, I am going to be honest.  Yes, I hate when you sharpen your pencil (switching away from electric pencil sharpeners because of this), I hate when you spin your ruler on your pencil (don't poke your eye out), when you put your head down on your desk (are you sleeping?), and when you don't tell me you haven't done your homework and I have to find out.  But no one knows that unelss I tell them and then they can sign up to learn in my classroom knowing all the terms and conditions, not just the ones in bold on the first page.   

Sunday, June 27, 2010

What My PLN Has Done for Me

I have always considered myself a bit of a techy geek, a badge I wear with pride; I may not look it, but I love technology and computers.  My school has a couple of people like me and we meet in secret; sharing sites and ideas for how we can make our classrooms more technology friendly.  And yet, Twitter escaped me.  Sure, I had an account, but no desire to follow celebrities or wannabe celebrities in their daily doings.  So last Friday, I was following 15 people on Twitter, had 4 followers myself which included my husband and two of my brothers (who the 4th one was I have no idea) and I had used Twitter as a status update tool.

Last Friday, my world moved a little bit:  One tweet came across my computer that mentioned PLN, not knowing what this meant I clicked on the link to the article and was brought to @shellterell's twitter account.  I scanned her tweets and clicked to follow her; the rest they say is history.  In 9 days, this is what learning about a PLN has done for me:

  • I now follow more than 100 educators, bloggers, techies from all around the world and daily add more valuable people .
  • These fantastic people have invited me to join in the The Educator's PLN where I have established contact with even more educators and resources.
  • I have started my own blog, not just doing a classroom blog anymore, and through that have been challenged to think about my teaching and which direction I want to go.
  • Strangers have complimented me on things I post and encouraged me to keep blogging.
  • I have been introduced to phenomenal free tools such as Voki, WallWisher, Wordia, Glogster, Prezi, and Mouse Mischief
  • I have set up a student blog via KidBlog for next year and have designed lessons for the students to blog about.  No one does this at my school.
  • I have discovered blogs to follow who do the research, try out new technology, come up with incredible lesson plans for me amongst many other things.
  • I have changed my Master's Degree to Technology Instruction - no joke.
  • I have forwarded blogs and articles on to my principal, PTO, Professional Development Coordinator for our district, and fellow teachers hoping to inspire them as much as I have been.
  • I have made tentative plans to go to my first technology conference, ISTE 2011.
  • I have out-geeked my husband for the first in our 10 years together.
  • Most importantly though; I have become energized about teaching!  I am not alone and nor should I be.  Reach out and there are people who will learn with you, teach with you, and go with you on your journey.  I can't wait to start the school year and create PLN's for my students.
In the last 9 days, I have discovered that there is a whole world out there waiting to join me on this crazy teaching ride and they all have the time to talk.  I cannot hide behind the excuse of not having time to collaborate anymore now that I can do it in a matter of 10 minutes of skimming the tweets from my PLN.
All I can say is; this is what 9 days with a PLN did for one teacher in a district, imagine a year with 10 teachers or 100 teachers.  Where will it take us all?

Saturday, June 26, 2010

10 uses for Voki

So I stumbled across Voki during one of my check ins with Twitter and my creative juices have been flowing. Here are my first 10 ideas for how to implement it in my room:

1. Have students introduce themselves to each other during the first week of school
2. Use it to deliver my morning message to the students
3. For shy students use to read haiku's or other poetry aloud - or really any (short) writing
4. Introduce new vocabulary in science and math
5. For student created podcasts (we do one named "Guess that Cow")
6. To introduce main characters in student created stories
7. My ELL students can use it to help them with pronunciation of vocabulary
8. After biography unit, have them create a character that tells facts about their researched person
9. Email them to our penpals asking them questions about their loves.
10. To share book reviews of favorite books read

These are just some of my beginning ideas, have any to add? Please do so in the comment sections.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Get Out of the Way!

This past Monday, an article was published in our local newspaper in which I was quoted; a huge moment in my brief teaching career. The article was a narrative of a field trip we took in which we had one of my students, who is a paraplegic, backpacked into an underground cave. Being his teacher, I was heralded as a solution-maker prompting many friends and acquaintances to praise me and my efforts to include all students. While the praise is wonderful it was not completely justifiable, for the credit for this solution in inaccessibility was not mine.

That honor goes to Miss Anma, our fearless physical therapist who has worked with this child ever since he entered our school. It was her words in September when we first discussed this end of the year quintessential 4th grade field trip, "How about we backpack him in?" Up until then, the solution was to not go the cave and rather go somewhere else, thus disappointing a whole set of 4th graders. You see this field trip is epic and is the definition of finishing 4th grade. Students talk about it on the first day of school and write about it as their favorite field trip before they have even gone. We knew from the start that my student's wheelchair would not be able to go into the cave and so we resigned ourselves that this year we would go somewhere else. Until Anma spoke up. "Yeah," I said, "why not put him in a backpack?" laughing a little at the idea but nevertheless not standing in the way of it.

Permissions were granted, a carrier was found who was willing to carry this 90 pound boy around for an hour in a makeshift backpack, training was had for the ordeal. And the whole time, I just got out of the way. The field trip was a massive success cherished by all involved. Posters have been made in my district with pictures of the boy in the backpack and a title "Nothing is Impossible." Hallmark would be proud. Accolades have been given, satisfied shoulder pats and misty eyes all around. And yet, the true teaching moment for me came when Anma hugged me and said, "Thank you so much for all of your support and help with this." All I could answer back was but I didn't help or support; I merely got out of the way so that you could do your job. And that was my biggest lesson; get out of the way so that others can get to work. Why make it harder for everyone else when they are there to help educate just as much as you are. So the praise for this adventure should not fall to me, but rather to a ingenious, compassionate physical therapist who dared to dream up a wonderful solution knowing that I would get out of her way.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

I Am So Sick of Grammar Packets

Part of 4th grade's curriculum at my school are grammar packets, or some sort of grammar lesson every week to ensure that students know the difference between verbs, nouns, adjectives and so forth. The idea of wrapping the lesson in a packet format meant less time needed to teach; all I had to do was introduce the various exercises and then assign the homework. Students would get a week to finish and then we moved on to the next topic. At the end of the year, after several eye rolls and disheartened moans from students when they realized it was time for grammar, lightning struck. Of course they hate grammar packets - I do too.

You see, packets can be fine when we need something to grade. However, if I am looking for a true learning experience, I cannot just assign something and then leave the students to their own devices. Learning must be shared, not handed out with a deadline. One student actually loved the packet; it was manageable, she knew that if she spelled everything correctly she would receive a good grade and most of the stuff she remembered from years prior. Some students saw them as a dreaded chore that they lumbered through and were happy with the grade they got. And then there were the kids that really needed to learn the grammar. Those kids lost the packet, would not realize they had lost it until the night before and would therefore hand in a half-finished product sometimes with pages missing, usually with the wrong answers because they had not understood the directions and had had no one to turn to for help. Those kids, the ones that really needed to learn, were not being given any favors by me or the packet.

Another aspect of the packet was the sheer number of points that I assigned to them; after all if a students was going to slave away over 5 pages of work then the points needed to be a reflection of that. Again, great for the students who had no problems with the topic or had help at home. Detrimental for the not so fortunate students. We don't give a separate grammar grade in 4th grade, we lump it under writing. And yes, understanding and using correct grammar is a vital step to being an accomplished writer, but the point value was so high that the packets counted toward a bigger piece of their grade than their actual writing. One student who was a very creative writer and used verbs and nouns correctly, could not identify them in a packet, even with help. But his ears told him how a sentence should sound so how do you grade that?

So under the constraints of having to teach grammar, I started to ponder, then how? We have a grammar book available which is kind of like the packet, except in a book form. So I knew that the book would not be my solution. The book does offer one thing though which is what the topics are that need to be taught, so that's a help. A solution came form an article I read, which I regretfully did not bookmark, in which the teacher described handing digital cameras to her students and having them search for nouns, verbs etc throughout the school. Now that is hands-on-learning. While not every grammar topic lends itself to the digital image - difference between an action verb and a helping verb as an example- this represents a start for me. A new idea where students are assigned a quest and they have to represent their answer somehow to their fellow students. I set up the learning, we discuss it and then with scaffolding, off they go. I only have my own digital camera but I am hoping to write grants for more or to come up with other methods for teaching the fundamentals of writing. Using Wordia and Voki keeps popping into my thoughts as well. Anyone out there with other thoughts or ideas? I refuse to believe I am the only one trying to escape packets.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The One I Couldn't Save

I am new educator, only 2 1/2 years under my belt and so I am an idealist. I still believe that I can save the world; one child at a time. Sure, some teachers share that belief but wiser or more grounded teachers may shake their heads. It is a belief I hold in high regards for how I approach my classroom and yet this year taught me a little too soon that sometimes, no matter what you do, and who you reach out to; you cannot save them all.

An irritated mother approached me on orientation day with a nice looking boy in tow; she introduced herself and then the child, who was to be one of my students, let's call him Peter. We chatted for as bit and I tried to share my hopes for the coming 4th grade year, mom quickly shook her head and told me, "Good luck with this one, he doesn't care about anything." The boy's smile quickly faded and I was dumbstruck. Wow - usually parents share their concerns privately, never in front of the child we are trying to teach. I shrugged it off, vowing that the parent's obvious frustration with her child would not leach into my relationship with him.

Once school started, it was clear that Peter was very depressed, riddled with anxiety, and so defiant that even tasks he had looked forward to were greeted with an immediate refusal when asked to participate. As I watched him slip further into the grips of depression; strange behaviors cropped up and finally suicidal thoughts were spoken of. Medications were changed, counselors were called, conference upon conference with the parents were had. I tried to engage Peter in all of our discussions; after all it was his life we were debating. And yet, when asked what he would prefer the answer was a shrug and an "I don't know." However, I was not going to give up, after all this is what I am born to do - change lives.

What do you do when the life you are trying to change does not want to be changed? I tried all the tricks I could think of; we praised, we had behavior charts, we took away homework, we stressed therapy, and constantly met with my team to discuss new options. Nothing worked. He participated less and less and became a massive distraction to the rest of the class. Toward the end of the year he was often in the office, were he had asked to be put so that he did not have to be in the classroom. On the last day of school he was suspended at 11 AM for inappropriate internet behavior and his dad came and picked him up; the disappointment showing like a banner held high.

School has now been out almost 2 weeks and yet he is the one I keep coming back to in my thoughts. How did I fail him as well, just as those who had come before me? Why was I not able to reach him? And most importantly, what happens now? How will this affect me in the coming years? There are students we never forget, no matter whether we want to or not. I will not forget Peter, sure the worry about his well-being will ease over time, but the wondering will not...I still believe that I can save the world one child at a time but maybe that is just an illusion.


So why blog? And why now?

Blogging can appear self-indulgent at times, yet inspirational at others. Being a teacher is not just a job, it can be an all consuming, never-ending thought process. Wherever I go; whatever I do, I am constantly thinking about whether this is something that can be used in my classroom - can I use this? It is different world view that one never gets quite used to, and sometimes it can be annoying to those close to you, and yet I would not change my life for anything.

To stay current and gain even more inspiration, I read blogs, I comment on them, I share the good ones. So now it is my turn to add my voice to the ever-growing world of bloggers. I hope I have something valuable to say.

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