Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Teacher's Biggest Fear

Last Thursday I had a parent meeting for the students that will be in my 4/5 class.  We had set up this opportunity since my school has not had a combination class for a long time and therefore wanted all questions and concerns addressed before orientation day.  It was a great turn out and a great night, something I wish anyone could do really before they start the school year.  And although there were many great questions, the best one was, "What is your biggest concern?"  My answer was "Building community."

I am sure many would have thought I would have answered how to get through the curriculum or something of that nature but that does not worry me as much as building community does.  And I am not alone with this concern.  Every year, when we start a new year, we want the best class possible.  We want our students to walk away from the year feeling that they belonged, that their teacher trusted them, respected them and that they had a genuine voice in the room.  No longer is it my room, but ours.  So community, that old catch phrase, is the one that keeps me awake.  

Since we are a combination room, community has to be a major focus right away.  Some students know each other and a lot do not.  However, that is true for almost any class.  Students tend to congregate with like-minded peers but often at the 4th grade level we start seeing some of the first shifts in friendships as students spread their wings a little and discover the world.

So how do I plan on building community, well let me count the ways....

One thing I am big on is language; language can destroy or build up.  In this case being a combination room rather than split class says a lot about how I feel.  We are a fusion, a combination, not something that is split off from the school, from other classes, other kids.  My welcome back bulletin board says, "We are a Terrippic Combination" and a bag of Combo's, one for each student, with their name on it, is stapled around the door.  This is the first things students see; combination rather than split.

I hate ice breakers.  They are awkward and contrived.  Rather we need to create a common purpose and that purpose is to have an amazing learning experience together.  So our first week activities reflect that.  We will be creating a digital scavenger hunt through questions made up by the students, they will decide what is important to know and find in our room and then do a voicethread presentation on it.  I will share my Animoto with them and invite them as a class to create one of our vision and class environment.  Armed with cameras and ideas students will lead this as well.  We will come up with filmed definitions of what student, classroom, and community means and share them on Wordia.

Students will come up with what they would like to be called when I do need to split according to grade level.  I don't want to continue calling them 4th and 5th graders, those words stick, whereas the birds and the dogs or something else does not remind them of their age difference.  We will talk about ourselves, our families, our hopes, our worries.  And then we will talk some more.  Although curriculum is super important, these first days and weeks set the tone for the rest of the year.  

So as I continue focusing on community, I wonder, what other teachers are doing?  What works for you, what will you never do again?  I have many small exercises as well that I will not bore you with, but what are the big things that leave students smiling, ready to learn?


Show Them You Are Human - George's Aha Moment

George is a Principal at a K-12 program in Stony Plain, Alberta. On his blog he says, "I learned quickly that as an administrator, you are only as good as the people that are around you." George perpetually reaches out to new educators, as well as new followers on Twitters and has proven to be a real leader in bringing principals and others together.  He blogs on several sites including his own blog The Principal of Change and the Connected Principals blog.  Follow George on Twitter at @gcouros, you will not regret adding this fantastic initiator to your PLN.

It is easily one of the most vivid moments that I have had as an educator. It is also a moment that I reflect on continuously when looking at my own practice, and helping to guide the practice of others.  It was my first “truck” you.

Okay,  so “truck” was not the term that was said at me, and I am sure that you can figure out what it was.  I had been teaching for 6 years and not one student had ever sworn at me.  I remember other educators telling me when a student swore at them, and it was like a fairy tale to me.  No student would ever do that.  How dare a child swear at a teacher!  I remember having some teachers that I did not like at all, but I would have never sworn at them.  Then it happened to me.

During lunch one day, I worked at my desk that was just tucked outside of the office.  During this time, I would work on course work as I was doing my Master’s degree.  Let’s just say that it was a very BUSY time for me and my life.  Although the door was locked, there was a window where you could see anyone that was in my room.  Sitting in the dark and trying to focus on my work, I wanted to be as unnoticeable as possible.  Feeling as if I should not be uninterrupted in my office, I remember a student knocking on the window as he printed something off in my office.  Being so stressed at this time and wanting to finish my work, I remember nodding my head and shaking “no” to the student.  He knocked again.  Again, I said “no”.  Then it happened.  Through the glass window, Patrick (not his real name), a grade 9 student, mouthed those words to me; “TRUCK YOU!”.

I looked up, and if he did not have my attention before, he had it now. I jumped from my chair, and being a rather large man, Patrick RAN AS FAST AS HE COULD.  Looking back, I was so stressed at this moment, that I am glad Patrick ran.  I was SO mad, hurt and embarrassed.  I was also angry. Very, very angry.

First of all, before I go on with this story, my behaviour towards the student was wrong.  Patrick was treated basically like a second class citizen.  If my principal would have come to the door, I would have popped up and opened it for her.  I would have also opened it for any staff member.  At that time in my life though, I would have not done the same for a student.  This is wrong.  You do not have to spend every moment at school around people.  We all need breaks.  You should always be caring and respectful though.  Always.  Although no one ever deserves to be sworn at, I treated that student wrong.  This was part of my “A-Ha” moment.

As I was furiously looking for Patrick around the school, I remember thinking of all the things that I would do to ensure Patrick’s day would be ruined.  I continued to envision how I would take Patrick to the office, demand his suspension (five day minimum of course) if not his expulsion!  I was so upset.  At this time though, Patrick was gone.  He had fled the school grounds.  He knew I was mad and he was scared.

Eventually I cooled down and realized how hurt I was by the whole incident.  How could a kid have done this to me? No one should be treated this way.  My anger soon turned to hurt.  I did not cry, but it was close.

Patrick came back to school.  Although I did not consciously decide to take a different approach, I did not take Patrick to the office.  I remember seeing Patrick and asking him calmly to speak to him in a side room.  He knew he had done something wrong and saw that I was calm.  When I did talk to him in the office, I started talking as a real person.  I told him that my parents were actually coming to visit the school in the next few days and now I was so embarrassed that a student in our school would say something like this to me.  How could I bring my parents into this environment?  I did not know if I could trust him to show respect in front of my own family.  I told him I was hurt.  I told him I was shocked.  I told him that I would not be able to sleep at night because this happened.  

Patrick saw I was hurt, and being a 14 year old boy, he fully understood the impact it had done to me.  He apologized and started balling at that moment.  I never did march him down to the office because I did not have to.  I felt he had learned from what he had done and that he was going to move on and be better.  I was right.

For the rest of the year, Patrick was THE NICEST kid to me at the entire school.  He went out of his way to say kind things to me and always made sure that he was nothing but respectful.  Not only was he great to me, but I really loved to learn that kid and we would even joke about the “truck you” moment.

My “aha” moment came not immediately after, but through my constant interactions with Patrick.  I thought “what if” I would have taken him to the office.  He probably would have been suspended, but he would have been the “bad” kid according to me, and I would have been the “jerk” teacher to him.  He would have never realized that I was actually a real person, but just “some teacher” who was rude and disrespectful to him (which I was).  I talk about this with staff when discussing bring students down to the office.  How many times have we taken kids to someone else to “deal” with and then lost out on the opportunity to connect and work with them through something.  Separating yourself from kids because they have done something wrong shows them that they do not need you at all.  There are definitely cases where students need to go to the office, but as the people “on the spot”, we should try to learn with these students together.  I do my best to get to know kids, but I will never know them as well as their homeroom teacher.

I also learned that it is much easier to teach a student about right and wrong when you do it from a humanistic perspective.  Being the “authority” often turns people away from you.  Showing that you are a person with feelings though, makes it a lot harder for a person to continue to be disrespectful.

From this moment, I know that I focus on treating everyone how I would want to be treated, especially students.  They need to feel loved and cared for and know they are the reason we are there.  I also learned that working with a student through their mistakes is not a pain, but an opportunity to teach something way more meaningful than what is in our curriculum.  I guarantee Patrick will remember that incident just as vividly as I have, and do his best to respect those around him.  Yes, some of these incidents are tough to deal with, but if you are expecting your job just to be easy moments, you are in the wrong profession.  Do not treat these moments as hassles, but into opportunities to connect and learn with your students.  Most importantly, be yourself.  Showing yourself as a human will not only shed a different understanding on you by your students, it will also make your job more rewarding.  Enjoy the kids you work with and appreciate that every moment you are in school, you are learning.  

I learned more about good education practice from those two words that day, than I had in several years of university.  Who would have thought those two words would have had such an impact.  My two words back? Thank you.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

What I Wish I had Known My First Year

Another school year is about to start and I am bursting at the seam with new ideas for better learning in my room.  I look back on the two short years I have taught and think of how far I have come already, imagining what I will look back upon in 20 years.  I see success and I see failures and it leads me to think of what I would have done differently had I known what I know now.
  • I would have questioned grades sooner rather than working so hard on averages only to change my mind come report card time.
  • I would have learn to reach out faster to co-workers and particularly veteran teachers that could have steered me in the right direction many times.
  • I would have given up the notion that I must know what I am doing at all times.
  • I would have given up on the teacher lectures and let the students talk more.
  • I would have embraced the noise more rather than futively signaling for quiet - who learns in total silence anyway?
  • I would have pulled down the awesome board and declared all of my students to be awesome each and every day.
  • I would have realized that it is ok to feel overwhelmed and it is ok to not take a huge pile of work home with me once in a while.
  • I would have realized that great learning doesn't always come from all worksheets or even written work.
  • I would have let students work on enrichment if they had mastered a concept, why beat them over the head with it?
  • I would have given myself a holiday from being perfect.
I would NOT have changed:
  • The incredible passion I feel for my job every day
  • The deep love of my students and their whole being
  • The way I connect with students through sharing our lives together
  • The ability to try new ideas and also know when they suck
  • The reflecting over my failures (but I would have let go of the useless beating up of myself over them)
  • The amazing feeling of responsibility and awe I have over being placed in charge of kids
  • The belief that i can change the world through these kids
  • The love, the love, the love
Happy first days to everyone

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones and Rewards Will Always Hurt You - Confessions of a Former Rewards Addict

This post is, was, and will be inspired by this post written by George Couros "The Impact of Awards"

I admit it.  Gold stars, super duper stickers, sticks, names on the board; I have done it all.  And when one reward system failed, another one took over.  Never one to sit and reflect that perhaps it was the system that was faulty and not just that the students grew tired of it.  After all, that carrot at the end of the stck was essential to my teaching success.  Those stickers meant I cared.  That Awesome board where A+ work was proudly displayed gave students something to strive for.  That certificate if you got an A on your math test meant that you were smart and that other students should look up to you.  Right?  Wrong again.

Oh, I thought I was clever.  I thought I knew how to motivate students and after all, what could a little reward do that would possibly hurt the child?  Well, after reading Alfie Kohn's book "Punished by Rewards," I realize just how wrong I have been.  Those papers on the awesome board did nothing to improve unity in my room.  Instead they acted as the great divide, highlighting the students that could from those that could not.  Those stickers I doled out for anything above 90%; not a cheerful way to celebrate achievement, but rather a glaring marker showing which students did the best in the room.  Those great "you did it" award certificates stapled to their math tests, not great posters of pride but instantaneous feedback on where a students falls within the grade hierarchy.  And yes, the students knew exactly where they fell within the classroom.

So this year I am throwing it all out.  Well, most of it anyway, I do like those stickers and will use them for good rather than evil.  And I am petrified.  After all, this is how I was taught to teach.  If a student does something good they should be rewarded and nothing says "Great job! I can tell you worked so hard" better than a smiley face sticker.  Wrong again.  A smiley face sticker says; "If you work hard, you will get a smiley face sticker."  And when in life does that ever happen?  This year, I plan on talking to my students even more.  Telling them what was great, asking them what they thought was great and then peeling apart things that didn't quite get there and figure out what went wrong.  We shall learn from our supposed mistakes, those will be our rewards.

So while I am excited for this new no-reward agenda, I do shudder a little bit at the implication it has.  No longer will I be the cool teacher with the Awesome board, the one you get to have pizza with if your stick doesn't get moved, the one that doles out classroom parties as if they were clean socks.  Instead, I will be the one that shouts the praise the loudest to every kid.  The one that talks to all my students and highlights all the things they did right.  The one that creates more work for herself because talking rather than just placing a sticker takes more time, more effort, more thought.  And I can't wait.  Will you join me?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Don't Be a Worthless Ball of Goo - Jeremy's Aha Moment

This week's Aha moment is shared by Jeremy Macdonald, a 5th grade teacher in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Besides opening minds of 5th graders he is also in charge of professional development at his school in regards to technology integration and can be found on twitter under @MrMacnology.  He has a fabulous wife and 3 wonderfully crazy kids.  A fellow grade slayer, deep thinker, and just one of the boys, his blog always inspires me to do better, strive for more, and just overall think about why I do what I do.

I’ve never looked back since that day.  I remember the rush that I felt.  There was no doubt in my mind.  It was my epiphany; my “Aha!” moment.  I finally knew what I was going to do for (essentially) the rest of my life...

(Camera fades out, flashback a la Wayne’s World.)

Since I was eight I wanted to be an F.B.I. agent.  My dad did it.  My uncle did it.  Several of my dad’s cousins did it.  I had a family heritage to uphold.  Shortly after graduating high school, I was getting ready to enroll for my first semester of college.  I was going to study psychology.  I wanted to “understand” the perps I would soon be investigating and apprehending.  I dreamt of closets full of dark suits and guns.  I was ready for shootouts and car chases.  I clicked the final “Submit” button and I was enrolled.  A few introductory psych classes along with a few other generals.

Jumping ahead a few months, I found myself sitting in front of that same computer screen, but this time in my dorm room.  I had about seven minutes before my first class started, but my room was at least a fifteen minute walk away.  What was I doing?  Why was my hand ready to click “Clear All” below my class schedule?  I really didn’t know WHAT I wanted to do.  Had I deceived myself with countless hours of the X-Files and Unsolved Mysteries?  I believe I had.  So I clicked.

Here I was, no classes, tuition paid, books bought, on the first day of school, and I was clueless.  Not exactly the best feeling.  Something led me to my university’s school of Fine Arts and Communications.  After a few minutes (and I mean this literally) of consideration, I was now a Communications Major, with a focus in Advertising and copy writing.  I was always day dreaming, doodling, and coming up with silly stories while growing up.  I thought that Advertising would be a great way for me to use this creativity for the greater good...(especially since I wouldn’t have to shoot anybody now.)

(Cue soft piano music and chimes)

(Camera fades out, and through a light fog, camera fades back in.)

So here I am after a two-year hiatus after my freshman year, newly married, and looking to explore a bit of Business and Finance before I commit to Advertising.  I loved being able to create, write, and laugh at most everything I did, but I was also a numbers guy and money had always interested me.  I enrolled in some basic business classes like Econ 110 and Accounting 101, in addition to my continued pursuit of Advertising.

It was the middle of the semester and Norm Nemrow was giving his famous “Sixth Lecture.”  He had nine required lectures during the semester--the rest of the learning was done on the computer and in the lab.  The “Sixth” was the one every Accounting major remembered.  It had nothing to do with accounting, actually.  It was a life-lessons lecture.  Norm talked to us about making life decisions based on our passions and what made us happy and not based on money or the endless pursuit of it.  Now this came from a man that was easily worth nine figures before he was 40!  Easy for him to say, right?  But in reality it was, and he meant every bit of it.

Norm, too, had an “Aha” moment.  He realized one day during retirement (remember, this was before he was even 40 years old) that he was a “worthless ball of goo”--his words, honest.  He had done nothing with his life since retiring and felt that he had more of a purpose to fulfill.  Long story short, he started teaching at the university.  For free.  And it was during that fabled “Sixth Lecture” that I learned all this, but it was what he was about to say that struck a chord.

“If I could go back and start over, I would have started right here, in the classroom.  I should have started as a teacher.”

(Cue light bulb.  Student “A”--that’s me--gazes towards ceiling with thoughtful expression)

Big words from a man that could fund a stimulus bill all on his own.  I knew he meant it though, and that’s when I said, “Aha!”  I literally had to keep myself from standing up and leaving.  I was ready to change majors and step into a classroom of my own.  Why had it taken so long for me to see this?  Psychology?  Advertising?  Business?  Who was I kidding?  What better place for a hyperactive daydreamer with a love for pencil fights than an elementary classroom?  I was a shoe-in.

(Cue sentimental piano/violin music a la the end of an After-school Special)

So here I am.  Over seven years since that day and I’ve never looked back; never second guessed; never regretted that decision.  It’s strange how life leads you down the most obscure paths before you “find your way.”

I will soon be starting my fifth year in the classroom and I think I’m more excited now than I have ever been.  Much of this anticipation is due to the marvelous PLN that I’ve been able to build over the last several months.  From Twitter to Blogs to #rscon10, I have been able to experience growth as an educator, and a learner, than I have at any other point in my career.  I am grateful for friends and colleagues like Pernille who drive me to think differently about learning and encourage me to keep doing what I’m doing.

(Fade to black)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dear Arnold...

Dear Arnold,
It was 2 weeks into the school year and there you were in the office; pants down by your knees, no backpack and the biggest grin stretched across your face.  When you asked me if I was your teacher and I said yes, you wrapped both tiny arms around my belly and gave me the biggest hug any skinny 4th grader had ever given me.  As we walked to the classroom, you eagerly asking questions, I thought about how lucky I was to have you in my room since you had that great big smile, if only your pants weren't so close to your knees.

The class invited you in, they were used to kids coming in from other cities and also fell under the spell of your smile.  Introductions were made, tentative friendships were formed.  Then one day, you started yelling. You were so mad, I had never seen a skinny little child scream so loud and so fiercely standing up for what you thought was an injustice.  Pulling you out into the hallway, I calmed you down and soon that big grin came right on back.

It was like a bubble had burst that day.  The grin was hidden away and the anger and the need to fight for yourself became a frequent visitor.  And yet, you never were angry at me.  I never felt threatened even when other teachers pointed to my growing belly and asked how I felt safe in my room.  I tried to explain to them that you were just being loud, venting a bit, and that all that screaming really was just for show; a way for you to fight for yourself as you had had to do so many times before.

Every morning you would say hello to the baby in my stomach and you would tell all the other kids about it.  Every morning I would remind you to pull up your pants, until I finally got you a belt, which you then strapped around your knees so that the pants stayed right there.  Almost every day I would pull you out in the hallway and remind you to just breathe, the others weren't trying to make you mad.  Take a deep breath, let's talk about it.

It was time for the baby to come so I went on leave.  I cried even though I knew my kids were in the best of hands.  I would try to sneak by for visits with the new baby but you always spotted me from the classroom window as if you knew that today was the day I was going to stop by.  You loved that little baby as much as you loved me and you told her that every time you held her.  I noticed you now had sticker charts and reminders of anger management strategies and that your grades were so bad.  And yet, when I walked in that door you told me about the good things.  See Mrs. Ripp, I got a C on this paper.  See Mrs. Ripp, I did this.  Your pride could not be taken away.

I came back from leave and you were the first one down to my room.  That big old hug came out again and you mentioned how much easier it was to hug me now.  Later that afternoon, that angry little boy was there again, yelling so loud for my attention.  Your lungs must have gotten bigger in the 12 weeks I was gone because I had never heard such a noise come from such a tiny child.  Just breathe, it will be alright.

The school year started winding down and we still battled with your demons.  I could read all of your signs.  Your fist closing, your quicker breaths, your eyes darting from place to place.  I knew when that voice would come back and I knew that you weren't mad at me; you were just mad at the world.  And the world sometimes seemed to be mad right back at you.  That final day when we said goodbye, you cried sitting under your old desk.  You looked up and asked me, "But Mrs. Ripp, what am I supposed to do?"  I had no answer so I simply hugged you one more time and cried with you.

All summer I thought about you and tried to contact you with no luck.    When another year started I was told you had moved again and would not be back to my school.  I just hoped and wished that I had given you enough reminders to breathe, calm down, it's not you against the world; it's us against the world.

I still look for you whenever I find myself in a big crowd of kids.  Hoping that from somewhere in the middle of all those little bodies, one set of skinny arms will reach out and hug me and say "Mrs. Ripp, where did you go?"  And I would tell you, "Nowhere, I am right here if you need me."  Arnold, I am still right here.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Love Them Before You Know Them- Greta's Aha Moment

Greta Sandler who is an elementary level English as a Second Language teacher in Buenos Aires, Argentina shares this week’s “Aha” moment.  She fell in love with the English language as a child and continues to be passionate about teaching and technology.  As a child she decided to become an ESL teacher but it was as an adult that the road ahead suddenly became clear.  Follow this passionate educator on Twitter at @Gret and keep an eye out for her very own blog coming soon.
I can still remember that day as if it were yesterday. It was my first day at a new school and my first year as an elementary teacher. My lifetime dream was coming true. So special was this day that everything around me was inspiring. I could savor every minute, every second there… just thinking of what it would be like, trying to imagine each of my new students, wondering if I would be able to connect with them, if I would be able to get the best from them. It was that day when I heard a teacher say a magical phrase, “The secret for a successful connection with students is loving them before actually meeting them.”  For some reason, that phrase stayed in my mind. I wondered what she had meant by that, I couldn’t actually figure it out, but it just felt special.

When I was assigned my group, I found out that there was a boy in my class, Thomas, who had an average performance, but serious behavior problems. What’s more, he was about to be expelled from school. I was sure there was a reason for his attitude. Little did I know that the reason would break my heart; it turns out that Thomas had been a victim of sexual abuse some years before. I didn’t know that kid, but he was already my favorite student. I talked to the other teachers, but only heard things such as: “I hate that kid,” “Don’t waste your energy on him,” or “It’s a hopeless case.” Needless to say, that was one of the saddest moments in my teaching career. In his record, all I could find were terrible comments and tons of dark, colorless and aggressive drawings he had made… Everything I read, everything I heard, and everything I saw only made me want to help him more and more.

School started and I finally met my class. Thomas didn’t exactly behave well, but it wasn’t as bad as people had pictured it. I tried to connect with him from the very first moment. I would spend time talking with him, making silly jokes and just showing him I cared. Every now and then, I assigned him important roles, so I could show him how much I trusted him. I always remember calling him Tom, instead of Thomas, for the first time.  I can still see his face glowing, when he came to me and whispered: “I had never had a nickname before.”  I would have never imagined that such a small gesture would touch his heart.

I must admit, I was really surprised when he came to me after a couple of months and said he was willing to improve on his behavior. Not only did he try really hard, but he would also ask me at least once a day if his behavior was OK or not. In addition to this, his grades began to improve and his attitude changed. He started to make friends and he was finally able to participate in class, share his stories and speak his mind. Soon after, everyone started calling him Tom. I saw small changes in him almost every day. 

I was truly touched one day, when I arrived to my classroom and found a beautiful drawing on my desk. Someone had made a drawing of me with a big pink heart on my chest. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I realized who had drawn it. I couldn’t hold the tears when I found this note on the back: “Miss Greta, I love you. Tom”

As months passed by Tom had become a brand new kid. He didn’t behave perfectly, but his attitude was different. He was passionate about learning and eager to keep making progress. It was just motivating seeing him play with his classmates during break time.  Apart from that, his grades had significantly improved and by the end of the year he was one of the best students in the class.
At the end-of-year ceremony, Tom was given an award for his effort and improvement. While he was receiving the well-deserved certificate, I could see his parents and grandparents looking at him so proudly with tearful eyes. That was my “Aha” moment. It was then that I understood how powerful connecting with our students is. It was then, that I finally understood what the phrase I had heard in the beginning of the school year meant.

This experience has totally changed my outlook on teaching. It made me realize how powerful our job is.  I learned that teaching is more than just following a curriculum. We get to touch people’s hearts; we get this unique opportunity of making someone’s life different by giving them tools to be better, by teaching them to believe in themselves and by showing them they are special and unique. It’s by showing them we care that we’ll get to do the most. It’s by loving them that we’ll be able to make them flourish. 


Saturday, August 14, 2010

Who Wants to Teach "Those" Students?

I became a teacher because I believed that all students could learn.  I believed that children have a purpose in life; that all children do not start out mad or confused, or hopeless.  I continued being a teacher because children proved to me that they wanted to learn, be happy, have a better life, and they they did not mean it personally when they acted out.  And yet, as I read articles like the one posted in the LA Times today (via @LarryFerlazzo), I wonder how many young people entering college will want to become a teacher; a believer in all children.

America's education policy is a numbers obsessed community.  We rank our students comparatively so that proper interventions can be given, we dole out pointless letter grades based on obscure percentages, we graph, we draw, we list from highest to lowest all in the quest of how to teach with more meaning, more ability, more effectiveness and more adherence.  This number obsession is now targeting teachers through merit pay suggestions, firings based on test scores, rewriting of school wide goals based on  the percentage of yearly growth in academics by individual teachers.  Nowhere is it mentioned where students started at the beginning of the year, what happened during the year, or any other factors that may have a play in how a child (and teacher) performs.  After all, how many of us have ever failed a test simply because we did not get enough sleep or had something else on our mind?  To use those test scores as the sole basis of observation of someones teaching skills is an injustice that we cannot afford to let pass.

I am not saying that there aren't poor teachers out there, of course there are.  However, we all know many educators that are passionate about their job and passionate about their children.  Because that's what they are; our kids.  We take them all; the hungry, the poor, the talented, the needy, the angry, the hopeless, the mutes, the ghost kids that are there one day and gone the next.  We invite them all into our room, into our lives and we do our best in teaching them something, even if it just means teaching them that ours is a room they can feel safe in.  And that is why I became a teacher; to invite them into my family, to show them all that someone cares about them, even if they have an overabundance of people who support and cherish them.

So as merit pay is discussed and jobs are cut because of test scores, I wonder; who will teach "those" kids?  The ones with the files as thick as a Harry Potter book, the ones everyone knows even if they have not taught them. the ones with the missing files that never seem to materialize, the ones that leave class to go to doctor's appointments, counseling, therapy, or just never show up.  The ones that so brighten my day, even if they are  there half of the week.  The ones that are forced into an adult role when they are 9, the ones that carry their little sister's backpacks in the hallway and hold their hand when they get on the bus because it is them against the world.  Who will teach those kids when you may lose your job because they did not live up to an inane standard set by a far removed government?  I will...will you?

Thursday, August 12, 2010



Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Just an Every Day PLN Moment

I, too, have joined the ranks of the faithful PLN supporters; the ones that proclaim all of the amazing things that have happened to us because of our connection with others whether we choose to call it a PLN or simply a community.  And yet, today I was reminded of just how big of an effect my PLN, or whatever you want to call it, has had on my everyday life.

In the last 2 days, my PLN has helped me with:

  • Convincing my principal that less homework = more learning.  Thank you to @Nunavut_teacher for sending out articles that I was able to pass on to my principal.  No meeting needed, the research spoke for itself.    
  • Share Everyday Math Resources with my school from another tweet.
  • Create a Google Map for the Global Read Aloud Project as prompted by the wonderful Laura Fleming.
  • Strengthen my argument for limiting grading in the classroom through conversations with @MrMacnology and @Joe_Bower. 
  • Purchase 8 Flip Camera's for the price of 4 thanks to a link sent out a long time ago on Twitter (if it was by you - thank you!)
  • Work out again - thanks to the fantastic people involved in #temt, now I don't want to be lazy.
  • Promise 500 people that I follow that I would get them a free IPad - thanks Twitter hacks.
This does not mean that I couldn't have figured this all out on my own, but the point is that I did not have to.  My PLN did all the legwork for me and in turn I tried to help them out.  

So thanks PLN, every day you make my life a little easier; my students (and husband) are grateful.

Monday, August 9, 2010

My Very Own "Aha" Moment

The following is a new regular feature that will be posted every Monday.  I hope that other's will be interested in sharing their  "Aha" moment with the world so that we as teachers can see how different we get to our life altering moments and how random people can end up shaping the rest of our lives.  Join me into the journey of "Aha" moments.

We all hear about them;, rumors,whispers, hushed conversation in the hallway, "Did you hear so and so had that moment." Shock, joy, jubilant outbursts often follow.  That moment being, of course, the evasive "Aha" moment.  This moment is something I chase every day, hoping that my students will experience the sheer joy when everything clicks into place and a concept becomes clearer.  As I grow professionally, my desire to create more of these gets even more insatiable and thankfully so.
Think back to your own childhood, though.  What was your biggest Aha moment?  What, all of a sudden, clicked into place and your future molded in front of you; now you had a direction, a course to steer from, a goal to reach.

Mine was about 6 years ago.  I was 2 years into my teaching degree.  Mind you, this was the second time I had entered college, the first time electing to be undecided, and undecidedly uninspired.  So there I was, my 23 year old self, thinking that maybe this whole teaching thing could be kind of interesting.  After all, I come from a long line of educators and they seem to really enjoy it.  Yet, my heart was not in it.  I had no inspirational stories about my favorite teacher, or how I could not wait to get with the kids.  In fact, I was reaching a rather critical point in where I though the whole degree was kind of a joke since all we were being taught was how to teach fictitious students.  College and teaching just did not seem to be worth it.

Then, I was assigned a practicum.  A teacher, that for some reason really liked me, set it up for me.  It was convenient, close to my house, and it was in special education, something that I had to learn about anyway.  With no delusions of anything grand, I arrived at the school and walked into Melanie's classroom.  Well, hold on, it wasn't quite a classroom but rather the old book room where she had been placed for convenience.  The room was full of kids, all sitting around a table writing.  Not a small feat, come to find out, since they all had varying degrees of special needs and they were all being serviced by this one teacher.  I introduced myself and immediately she put me to work making me listen to a child read aloud.  As I sat there listening to this young girl, so eager to share the basic book she was reading, I looked around the room.  This kids loved their teacher and she loved them back.  The praise, the admiration for their effort, and the respect that emanated throughout this room was tangible.  Melanie knew what it meant to be a teacher of all children and they basked in her genuine caring for all of their aspirations.

The 2 hours flew by and I had to go to work.  I thanked her profusely and promised I would be back.  As I got in my car, it happened; my "Aha" moment.  So this is what being a teacher can look like, feel like, be like.  Melanie's teaching skills and person skills changed my entire outlook on teaching and what teaching meant for me.  During this practicum I developed this high sense of urgency in reaching these students and fell in love with  really, truly, believing that all children can be reached, that all children have a chance at learning, and that you have to believe.  Melanie is the reason I became a teacher.

This story has a fairy tale ending if you would like.  I came back to this school for a year, always making up excuses and twisting my practicum placements so that I could continue to be in Melanie's room.  When it came time to say goodbye, I cried as the students gave me their handmade cards and pictures.  I promised to stay in touch, which I did, and over a year later, Melanie set me up in my student teaching experience in a 5th grade room in the same school.  Through that I got a long-term sub position that ultimately led to my regular position as a 4th grade teacher at the same school.  Melanie and I are still great friends, and I will be the first to yell the loudest about just how phenomenal of a teacher she is.  She was the conductor of my "Aha" moment, the reason why I am so happy with my life now.  She continues to inspire me in how she teaches her children, how she reaches out and how she touches a community.  I owe her more than she will ever know and every day I hope that some day, somehow I will be the provider of such an "Aha" moment.

Friday, August 6, 2010

So, let's Get These Students Tech Ready

Since I am teaching a 4/5 combination class this year, and 8 of the students are my old students, I have had to throw all my usual first week projects out.  (Which by the way is incredibly liberating; you should try it!)

The first week of school, or more accurately the first actual 7 days of school, will therefore be a great chance to integrate tech into my classroom and get my students ready to participate in the Global Read Aloud.
So what will we do?

  • Using Skype, parents will be invited to call us in the classroom at the end of the day so we can share what we have been doing.
  • Using Wordle, students will think of adjectives to describe themselves and parents' adjectives will be added as a surprise.  These print-outs will go in lockers.
  • Voki will be used to create book hooks describing one cool book they read over the summer.
  • We will write a letter to ourselves about our expectations for the year using Future Me.  We will plan to receive them back the last week of school.
  • Wallwisher will be used and shared with parents to showcase something we learned in class.
  • We will blog about something we hope to learn and post in our kid blog.
  • Voki will also be used to introduce another classmate to the class.
  • We will use Google Earth to look up participants in the Global Read Aloud and then do pins on a world map in the classroom.
  • Digital Cameras will be introduced by having them go on a scavenger hunt in my room and having to photograph the "treasures" - these will be posted on VoiceThread as a guide to our classroom for parents to see.
  • We will use Animoto to come up with our hopes and wishes for the year letting each child add a picture and a sentence.
  • Wordia will be used when students have to come up with the definition of student, classroom, community, teacher, and school.  We will tape and post our own definitions.
How will you integrate technology into your classroom?  How do we get the kids excited about using it and how do you make it purposeful and not just technology for technology's sake?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Elusive Hunt for the Goal of Education

This is my guest blog that I wrote for Edutopia 2 weeks ago
"So tell me, what is your goal of education?" It's a question asked in interviews throughout the globe as nervous candidates vie for that elusive teaching job. Well-researched, with philosophy of education chosen, the candidates offer answers that they hope will score high on the interview rubric. Successful words often include "kids," "learning," "citizen" and any other buzzwords floating around the education community. Yet ask a veteran teacher, or even a semi-veteran, and they may come up with an answer that would not fit into any interview rubric, knowing full well that the goal of education cannot just be summed up in one sentence.

So really, as a community we must ask ourselves: Is there such a thing as a common goal?

The question of what is the common goal of education was the recent topic of #edchat and one that I hesitated to participate in. I love the forum, however, this topic seemed listless to me. Isn't the goal of education to teach? Well, maybe not, if you ask teachers around the world.
Some people say that the goal is to shape citizens, or to create lifelong learners, or even to be guides. All wonderful goals, but can any one of them claim to be the ultimate goal for us all? The one constant in the discussion is just how different we all feel the goal of education is. Some people need the goal to be retention of information so that their school is not closed. Others need kids to perform better so jobs are not lost. And still others need to prove just why the community should support their school with another referendum so that they can buy new textbooks. I teach in a school where we have wonderful community support, as well as above-average academic standing; therefore my goal of education is vastly different than most, and then again, maybe not.

My goal is simple: It is to learn.

Not just learn about the topics, or the tests, facts, assignments, how to get from point A to point B, but instead how to learn and how to love learning. Granted, I did not love school as a child. My classroom teacher hated me for being different and locked me in a closet on a summer day, no joke. Nor did I love the homework that seemed pointless and unrealistic, or the parent-teacher conferences where my mother would be told that I did not apply myself. Yet, my mother continued to believe in me as a learner, knowing that I did love learning; just not the way the school presented it. Reflecting on it now, I recognize that there was no goal that included me in it.
So when we discuss a common goal of education I liken it to the tale of the Loch Ness Monster. Some people claim to have seen it, some people pursue it relentlessly, and many hope in their quiet minds that maybe our world is magical enough to really possess such a thing. I agree that if we had a common goal of education, it would make it much easier to participate in the debate.

But how would that play out?

You could use that goal to twist and mold it into whichever educational philosophy you choose. Policy makers and big talkers could point to the goal and use it to push their way of thinking onto unsuspecting teachers. One single goal could mean one single voice in the debate. And yet, that is exactly what we, as educators, fight against every day. We fight against complacency and average pursuits. We fight against one way of learning, of teaching, because we know we will not reach all of our students that way. We fight for our classrooms not to be framed by one sentence since we are multidimensional teachers who bring vast arrays of learning into our rooms and would prefer to stay that way.

So the goal of education can be many things.

You may choose to answer the question in whichever way you want, because ultimately you have to believe in the goal that you choose. I cannot tell you what goal will work for you, that is your own path to explore. I just hope that you realize that it is okay to choose a different goal every day, every topic, every student. After all, we are the shapers of the future and not just people hoping against all odds that true learning is not just a myth but something we participate in every day. So explore your goals, change them, turn them on their heads, and use them for inspiration. But most of all do not let them become inflexible.

Do you agree or did I miss my mark?

What I Won't Do on the First Day of School

Ahh, teachers in America are getting excited, nervous, anxious now that the first day of school is inching ever closer.  People are sharing classroom photos, ideas, as well as posts on what they intend to do on the first day of school.  These always give me such inspiration for change, such as this one by the fantastic Larry Ferlazzo, but I started to think, so what do I not want to do on the first day of school?

This year, I promise my students to not:

  • Sit behind my desk and wave at you, but instead be in the hallway, smiling.
  • Expect you to put everything away and stay organized, after all, learning can be kind of messy.
  • Hand you a folder with paperwork to fill out so that I can get to know you better.  Real community comes from conversation.
  • Give you a list of my rules; we will make expectations together.
  • Welcome you to "my room," it is our room!
  • Talk about all of the homework you will have, instead I will share the great knowledge we will uncover.
  • Tell you how you can earn rewards; no stickers, stars or trinkets in here - knowledge is our reward.
  • Pretend that I know what you are going to say or only partially listen; you are my focus and will be the whole year.
  • Run to the teacher's lounge and share stories about those kids that I have.  Instead I will share just how phenomenal this year will be.
  • Pretend that I have all of the answers or am the absolute authority in the room; this is a journey we take together and you get to teach me as well.
  • Hide that I am nervous.  I don't know you either so, of course, I am nervous.
  • Tell you how to get an "A."  Learning is not about grading, it is about learning, so grades will not be a main focus.
  • Second-guess everything I said or did; I will trust in myself and hope you do the same.
  • Be afraid to try something you suggested; after all, what is the harm in trying?
So ask yourself, what do you not want to do on the first day of school?  I am sure many more ideas will pop into my head.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

So You Want to Use Kidblog?

I am practically counting down the days until school starts just bursting at the seams with all of the great technology we are going to use next year.  One of our main components will be our kidblog but since this is the first year anyone has done anything like this in my school, there was some safety business to handle first.  So here are my links to an internet safety plan my students will sign as well as the kidblog introduction letter I am sending home to parents.

Go Ahead; Lose Yourself

This post is inspired by a comment left by Susan, a new teacher, on my post "Do You Dare to Look in the Mirror"

Dear Self,
This year, allow yourself to lose the pointless homework, lose the percents, lose the monologue and for sure, all of the packets.  Feel free to lose the dioramas (wow, I hate dioramas), the stilted book reports, math pages that are beside the point and insane expectations for kids that are trying so hard.  Lose the F', the D's and any other letter that comes to mind, and the averages.  Lose the raising of eyebrows over late work, the percent deduction, the phone call home, and the threats of failure if work isn't turned in.  Lose the "my room" and let it be "our room."  Let go of black and white and invite in some gray.  Lose the insane motivational posters that just clutter your walls.  Let go of a desk for every student, lose the need to organize them as you do your supplies.  Lose your inhibitions, your fears, your need for privacy.  Lose packaged lessons, and old ideas, or at least the ones that do not work.  But never lose your excitement, belief, warmth, or your heart.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

So I Wrote to Alfie Kohn...

This weekend marked the first ever Reform Symposium, which was an incredible experience of people involved in education all coming together to tear it apart and perhaps puzzle it all back together.  There were many stellar talks but my favorite presentation was by far Joe Bower´s on Abolishing Grades, although I must admit I am partial here because I already admire Joe´s work and dedication.  Joe did not disappoint and the backchannel talk was lively as well.  I certainly only became more passionate about my quiet revolution in my own room of perhaps, just maybe, removing grades.

However, to do so though there are people I must get on my side, the first one being my principal, so as any passionate teacher does, I have been gathering my research, thoughts and ideas as I prepare for it.  Once again, it has been a wonderful experience to find that I am not alone in this frustration with grades and a particularly grateful thanks go to @MrMacnology and @Joe_ Bower for their non-exasperated answers to my endless questions.   

And yet, I wanted to see if there was anything I was missing, so I decided to write to Alfie Kohn and by golly he answered my request for help to speak to my principal.

Here is my plea for help:

Dear Mr. Kohn,
I am 3rd year 4th grade teacher struggling with why I grade students.  For 2 years now, I have fudged grades, assigned worksheets to make sure I have enough stuff to make an average from, and dashed students love of learning when they received a poor grade.  For 2 years I have fielded parent phone class on why their child got a particular grade and graded papers until i was ready to fall asleep.  I have dozed off during meaningless book report presentations, and fought with homeless students to turn their homework in.  I am done with grades but have to still convince my principal.  Do you have any strong points that i should bring up to him to convince him that learning should be for learning's sake and not to produce a grade? 
Pernille Ripp

Here is the advice I received:
Thanks for your note.  I've written about why grades are unnecessary and harmful in two books (Punished by Rewards and The Schools Our Children Deserve) and in two articles (www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/fdtd-g.htm and www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/grading.htm).  The first of those articles is a little more accessible, I think.  It's focused on grading at the high school level, but I think one can argue that its points apply more strongly to teaching younger children since there is even less of a case to be made in favor of giving kids grades.  (One can't even rationalize them on the grounds that colleges care.)
A Canadian teacher has lately been working hard to persuade other educators to join him in refusing to give grades on individual assignments (even if they have to turn in an end-of-term grade).  Some of the resources on his blog may be useful to you:  www.joebower.org/p/abolishing-grading.html.  Of course, persuading the principal to stop using grades at all -- on a schoolwide level -- would be much more desirable.
Also of possible interest:  this account of a middle school administrator and a high school teacher who have gotten rid of grades (www.alfiekohn.org/miscellaneous/newsarchive.htm#grades) and the first two clips from my DVD that summarize some of the key reasons that grades don't make sense:  www.alfiekohn.org/gandhvideoclips.htm.
Any or all of these resources can be shared with parents and other teachers, the idea being to organize opposition to grades so you're not fighting this all by yourself.
Good luck!

-- Alfie Kohn

I am once again amazed at the power of reaching out to others for help in this quiet revolution against grades.  I am excited to meet with my principal, and hopefully persuade him to let me try this.  And most of all, I am excited about joining up with all of you that think,  discuss, evaluate and listen every single day; never too tired to ponder, "Are we doing the right thing?"

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