Friday, December 31, 2010

I Once Met Angela Johnson

I once met Angela Johnson
That poet author, who takes you there, makes you live, makes you feel.
I touched that hand that wrote those words and she turned to me and said, "And what do you want to be when you grow up?"
So I felt like a kid, wishing, dreaming and thinking about all of the possibilities.
And I said, "I want to be like you, a sayer of words, a magical creature, who makes you feel, makes you think, makes you live."
And she turned to me and smiled and said, "You must find your voice to be you, not to be me."

S I searched within me.
Dug down into the layers, not knowing what it was was looking for but knowing it was somewhere.
Because Angela Johnson told me so.
And one day, there it was, found beneath the layers.
A tiny voice with no direction, but this urgency that meant I could not hold it back.
And I so I tried to become the slayer of words, to make the people feel, to take you there.
Until I realized that I was not Angela Johnson, I was me.
I had found my voice voice but not my thoughts.
So the search continues because
I once met Angela Johnson.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

My New Year's Promises

I promise to be the teacher I say I am.  I promise to laugh louder, scowl less, and wonder more.  To dream, to dance, and to sing as loud as I can.

I promise to inspire you, to be a role model whenever it is humanly possible, and to switch out my swear words.

I promise to read, reflect, and ponder.  I promise to be strong yet kind, unwavering yet changing, and always always questioning.  I promise that I will balance the work, the life, and the love.  I promise to be present, right here, now, listening.  

I promise to ask questions, not judge, and save up compliments.  I promise to not make so many promises that they become another weight to carry.  I promise to be me, warts and all, and to accept you, glorious faults and flaws.

I promise to push myself, to reach for new heights and to believe, believe, believe.

But most importantly, I promise to be the mother my daughter should have, the teacher my students deserve, and the wife that my husband makes me want to be.  What do you promise?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My Interview for the Upcoming Reform Symposium

I had the great honor to be interviewed by the fantastic Shelly Terrell today in anticipation for my presentation "Let Them Speak" at the upcoming New Teacher Reform Symposium.  Here is the interview and make sure you register for the e.conference held on January 8th or January 9th depending on your location.


The Ones that Wrote Themselves

Maybe you didn't see these or maybe you did, but these are the posts that wrote themselves.  The tear jerkers, the upsets, the ones that I had to write.

There could be many more but these are the ones I am grateful for writing.

  1. Stand Up if You are Average - Why we should never label students.
  2. Dear Beautiful Baby - An ode to the child that was not meant to be.
  3. Dear Arnold - When that student comes into our life.
  4. Rulebreaker - Why I chose no grades, no homework.
  5. We are Not Role Models - How I am not Superman, and nor do I want to be.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

What I Pass On to My Daughter

After reading an excellent article discussing the danger of praising children on their smarts, my husband and I ended up discussing our own method for raising our daughter, Thea.  After a while, I commented, that I hope I am not one of those teacher mom's that is hard for her teachers to deal with.  The one that is too over-involved because they believe to the core that their child is smart, funny, articulate, and creative (not gifted, just normal smart).  My husband was kind enough to let me know that he would help me control myself but then posed an excellent question; what if our daughter is just like me?

Most people would jump for joy if their children turned out just like them.  And sure, there are many qualities that I wish I could just pass on to Thea.  I have a pretty good sense of sarcasm and humor, I love abundantly and loudly.  I am honest to a fault (surprise!) and I work very hard at my goals.  I am a nurturer, a believer in people, and a devoted friend, wife, sister, and daughter.  These are all fine qualities that I know Thea will have as well.  However, there are things that I hope she misses out on from me and instead takes after my husband.

You see, I am an overachiever.

Ever since grade school where my mother was told I needed to apply myself, I have had a very twisted view of education for myself.  Not only is it something to master, but it must be conquered, slayed, and nullified for me to be pleased.  I went through college working full-time and taking 18 or more credits every semester.  I was that student that always raised their hand, always had an answer, or even worse an opinion.  I was past the point of really caring whether others liked me or not, I was there to get a good grade - an A - and nothing else.  And I did.  I ended up graduating Summa Cum Laude with a 4.0 GPA.  No one was prouder than myself.  I thought I had done it, I was on top of the world with my diploma and my drive.  My family was just thrilled that this maniacal journey was over.  See no one really cares what your GPA is once you graduate. They had explained this to me before, but still I was relentless.  I pushed myself so hard that I had a panic attack before leaving for my honeymoon because of a science exam.  I worked and worked, always trying to get it just right, making it perfect, and for what?  A diploma?

So when I think of qualities for my daughter to inherit, being an overachiever is not something I wish for her.  In fact I don't wish it on anyone.  Instead, I hope for her to have fun with learning, to realize that grades are not the end all, that the award is truly the learning journey and not the end result.  I carry this hope for my students as well.  I want them to experience school as a place to explore and gain knowledge, not to join a race to the top, always pushing for better grades and more rewards.  I want to stop the insanity before it becomes so infested in their soul that they end up like me; pushing themselves to perfection and forgetting to enjoy the journey.  What luxury it is to get an education, isn't it about time we teach our students to enjoy the ride?

Which qualities do you wish your children or students get or do not get?  What would you change?

Monday, December 27, 2010

New Teacher Reform Symposium

I am humbled and honored to be among the amazing presenters scheduled for the upcoming New Teacher Reform Symposium.  And whilst the name may fool you, this is a don't miss event for all teachers, not just new ones.  This amazing free worldwide e.conference takes place on your computer Saturday, January 8th and Sunday the 9th depending on your location with 2 keynotes and 18 presenters.  You can see the schedule of events and the speaker list here.   There are even door prizes for participants, and I know my district lets me use it for professional development, so you may even be able to get that.

I will be speaking on creating a student-centered classroom, which has been my mission this year as a newish teacher.  So as any new teacher should do, I ask you, what advice should I make sure I pass on?  Here is your chance to be heard.

Join me and educators around the world as we learn from each other through this incredible opportunity.  As a participant in the last reform symposium, I can guarantee this is not an opportunity you want to miss!

Are We Forcing Students to be Noncompliant?

Noncompliance; just the word makes me shudder.  So many connotations, so much negativity connected to this word, particularly in a classroom setting and yet you hear it whispered in the hallways, "noncompliance..."  This word means:  The failure or refusal to comply, meaning someone who is not following directions whether intentional or not.  It is a mantra that we repeat, we must have students that comply in order to be successful.  Without compliance our classrooms would simply fall apart.  

Think about your day; you expect certain things out of the students for the classroom to work.  Perhaps these expectations are simple such as signing in, getting to work, hanging your backpack, and handing in your homework.  Or perhaps these expectations are ones that have been taught, such as raising your hand, not interrupting, working hard and trying your best.  Whatever your expectations, sometimes there are kids that do not comply.  I once had a student that didn't comply, it was a tough year, everything was a battle.  And yet, it was not because of a refusal to do so, he simply failed in the act of complying.  He had too many demons to battle that there simply was not enough life energy left over to focus on all of my expectations and demands.   So he was, indeed, noncompliant.  

Think about the heaviness that comes with that word, though, when we label our students.  Is it really because they are truly refusing or is it because of failure in communications or expectations?  Perhaps a child becomes noncompliant because we set up perimeters in which they cannot succeed.  Think of the child that fiddles, that child will not perform as expected if we set them up with nothing to fiddle with.  Or the child that learns kinestethically rather than orally; if we continue to just talk rather than do, they might also not conform or do what we expect.

So when you set up your classroom expectations, think about what you are asking every student to do.  Does every rule need to apply to ever student?  How many rules or expectations does there really need to be?  Don't forget about your hidden assumptions that you have to communicate as well.  What in your learning environment can you change to to give the biggest percent of kids a chance to be compliant?  We often assume that students defy us on purpose, rather than figuring out the reason.  And yet, sometimes the real reasons for students behavior may be something we would have never guessed.  Instead of battling later, don't set your room up for battle instead set up your room for freedom so that students may have choices.  Offer them an opportunity to be successful, to be compliant, to want to learn, after all, most ids do really like school.  Let's not take that away from them.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

What Christmas Means to Me

In Denmark, today is the day after Christmas but being in America with an almost two-year old, today is Christmas as well. But what does that mean?

Christmas means to me "hygge", duck roast, and kisses at any time possible. A wonky christmas tree with the expensive decorations at top, a star on top that we all have, singing and holding hands. Fires roaring, marzipan, blankets for cold toes. Thea saying "whoa" at every present, whether hers or not. Bad jokes, too many gifts, and cashmere. Snuggling in bed, remembering loved ones, and missing those not with us. Christmas means the end of a year, reflection, and happiness in its pure form. A year where I know I did my best, my hardest, and my most honest. I did it. I believed it. And I lived it. I hope you lived it as well; Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Start Asking Questions

You know the kid, usually a boy, tap, tap, tapping his foot. Gets up, gets something, sits down and then taps taps taps some more. Then whatever he is tapping breaks so he falls out of his chair trying to get something out of his desk. By this time, you are not talking anymore, simply staring as this child as he continues to fiddle,stare out the window, and tap, tap, tap.

So you go to your team and whisper ADHD, not for sure, but someone better check. Has this been a prior concern? Are there records? How would parents react? Never once do we stop to ask the kid why he taps, or rarely anyway. We don't ask "Why do you blurt? Why do you interrupt? Why are you so exhausted and exhausting?" Instead, we assume. We know, after all, we have seen them before. We are the experts, we know kids, this is our job.

But what if we did ask? What if that boy said that I don't like my chair because it is uncomfortable? Or how about, when the teacher talks too much, I lose interest because I want to do, to touch, to experience, and not just listen and regurgitate information.

Is your classroom set up for tap, tap, tapping? Is it set up for kids getting out of their seats? For the boy fiddling? For the girl staring out the window? Or for those kids we label because maybe some meds will probably do the trick? When do we stop assuming and start asking questions? When will we realize that we do not have all of the answers and some times we have to ask the students? I think that time has come.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

So What's My Problem with Homework?

I just read a frightening and excellent post by Mark Hansen discussing homework in a real-life example with his son and immediately I wanted to comment on it.  But then I realized that would be rather lengthy, so instead I offer this post.  What is my problem with homework?

I never use to hate homework until last year.  Something hit me when I told my husband that I knew exactly which kid would hand in the homework with "some" help from the parents, which kid would hand in something half-finished, and which kid would never hand it in but instead take my punishment.  And punish I did.  Oh, I used to be the queen of taking away privileges.  It was awful.  There we were, staring at each other every recess trying to figure out just how much help was needed versus how much effort needed to be exerted.  It was exhausting for me and the kids.

And guess what, I was right!

I knew exactly which kids would not be able to complete the homework no matter how much help I gave them in school; they simply did not have the skills or resources needed to finish it at home.  Over the summer, this was the point I kept returning to, wondering if I could be "radical" and get rid of homework almost altogether?  And so I did.  This year, there is very little homework in my room and here is why, in no particular order:

  • Homework is an excuse for the stuff we didn't get to.  I stated this in my parent/student orientation and most parents nodded their heads.  We always have one more thing we just need to get to when the bell rings.  Well guess what?  Then we need to restructure our day and get to it, rather then slip it in to the backpack for the kids to deal with.  I know there is pressure with curriculum but if you know what your goal is for the lesson, then get to it!
  • Homework is practice - for some kids. Some kids will take 5 minutes to do homework because they already get it, some will take 30 minutes because they need parent help, others will never finish.  This is not fair.  If we do not equip students with the correct knowledge to complete the homework then we should not assign it.
  • Homework is not fair.  You know which kids will ace it and which kids will spend hours trying to solve a math page.  One sheet/assignment/report does not fit all.  If you already know how a kid will do on something then why are you bothering with the assignment, seems to me they have already shown you where their skills lie.
  • Homework steals away childhood.  Every minute of homework that you assign is an infringement of your students' time spent experiencing the real world.  We say we want well-rounded students, but then have them spend an hour or more practicing school skills.  We already asked for 7+ hours of their time, let them have some free time to do the things that exposes them to the big world and in turn helps them become better people and students.  You will end up with kids that might just be excited about school, rather than exhausted.
  • Homework does not always fit the learning.  Worksheets are on the way out in many classrooms, and yet, we fall back on them all the time to check for understanding.  However, not all skills that we teach transfer onto paper very well.  I agree that math lends itself nicely to paper pages of problems, but why assign 3 pages if you can get away with just a couple of problems?  Before you assign think of the purpose of your homework; does it really give the students a way to show off their knowledge or will you just help you assign a percentage better?
  • Homework is maybe not just done by the student.  There are many helpful parents out there that really want their child to succeed.  As parents nothing gets us more than our child not understanding something.  How often do parents tell us that they had to help their child finish their work?  How often do we get projects turned in that required hours of craft work way outside of the range of your grade level?  The parents have already been to school, stop asking them to do work or in some cases, stop giving them a way to relive their school days through projects.
I know that there are times and situations where homework becomes a good extension such as sending kids out into the community to interview elders for heritage days, or continuing research on their own.  
I am not against all homework, what I am against, though, is the homework just for the sake of assigning homework.  I used to tell my parents to expect about 40 minutes of homework every night in 4th grade because I had been told it is about 10 minutes times the grade level.  40 minutes!  And then we ask students to read their books and do projects on top of that.  No wonder our students are exhausted when they come back the next day rather than eager to learn.

Think of what the purpose of homework is in your room, look really hard at your reasoning; why do you assign it?  Is it a meaningful learning experience that will help students become smarter, more knowledgeable, better people?  If yes, excellent.   But if no, not always, then stop, re-evaluate, clean it out, and then tell your students.  You will marvel at their response.

I was petrified to stop, worried that people would think I was skimping out on my job duties.  Almost all of my parents now rejoice in this year of calmness.  They know that if I assign something, there is a valid reason for it.  They also know that their child is learning as much as any other student in the 4th grade.  Stop the homework insanity and let these kids be kids.  We can accomplish the learning without the extra work.  You just have to believe in your own capabilities as en educate, so educate, don't assign.

So What Did People Read - Top 5 of 2010

As the year winds down and I look back upon it, I realize just how incredible this year has been.  Not only has a lot of happiness occurred in my life, such as falling even more in love with my incredible soulmate, being in awe of our miracle daughter, and having the best job in the whole wide world, but I have also built an incredible network of professionals throughout the world.  Thank you so much for all of your comments, links, supports and even bothering reading my rants in the first place.  I blog to keep myself honest, and boy, has it been an honest year!

Here are the top 5 posts of 2010, as picked by you, the readers:

1.  Dear First Year Pernille 
      - A letter written to myself about the things I wish I knew when I started, ahh wisdom.
2.  What I Won't Do on the First Day of School 
      - Pushing myself into a student-centered classroom from the very first day.
3.  Each Day is Special - Nancy's Aha Moment 
    - An incredible post reminding us to find the wonder in the every day.
4.  So You Want to Use Kidblog?
    -  Students blogging has been an incredible experience, here are tools for teachers to get started.
5.  Who Wants to Teach "Those" Students?
    -  As we become more test obsessed, a rededication to "those" students, I will always step up to teach          

Did you have a favorite?  If you do, thank you, if not, stick with me and help me learn.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Merry Christmas from Me


Today, There were Tears

Today, there were tears, good ones, not the sad ones of saying goodbye to the kids as they left me for winter break. Great tears of welcome, of happiness, of rejoice in knowing that this job is the one for me. That these kids might just be the most magical kids I have ever encountered (alright, I think that every year). That this year, we have something so fantastic going on in room 310 that I simply cannot wait to get back to work with them. That this year, we will move mountains, change the world, and have a lot of fun in the process. And you know what? They feel the same way.

Teaching is magic.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Little Too Much Pressure

Last Thursday, I went to the hospital for an out-patient procedure that would hopefully provide my husband and I answers to our battle with infertility. Why do I share this personal experience? Because it is shaping me into being a better person. You see, what was supposed to be an hour long procedure with quick return to my home that same evening turned into a four-day hospital stay with continued observation. During the routine procedure, my doctor pushed a little too hard and ended up puncturing my mensateric artery. As you can imagine, this is a serious mistake.

It was not because he was eager to finish, or inexperienced, but rather because he had to apply a little bt of pressure to go through scar tissue from a previous surgery. He thought he knew how much pressure to apply, but as it turns out, he applied too much. Think of how often this happens in education? We have experience, we have the time, and we think we know exactly how much pressure to exert on our students. We push, we dig, and all of a sudden the damage is done and it is too late. We don't know how we got so deep, how we hurt them, and now it is our job to figure out how to heal them.

My doctor did something smart; he called in an expert. Someone who knew exactly what to do and could do it thoroughly and efficiently. He also asked a lot of questions and then he gave his best. He explained to my husband what had happened, he explained it to me, and then had to explain it several more times over the coming days to me and my family as we struggled with our questions. He never got angry, or impatient, but continued to answer our questions, to help us heal, to help us redevelop our trust in him as my doctor. He put in the work so that I would not lose my faith in him as a professional, or more importantly, as a human being. And I haven't; he continues to treat me, and I continue to choose him as my doctor because he showed me that when a mistake was made, he was still there to figure it out. To make it right. To make me understand and to help me get better. That is our job as teachers as well. We make mistakes, we are human, but what distinguishes good teachers from great ones are the ones that stick around to fix their mistakes, to learn from them, and to invest even more into that relationship.

So next time you push too hard or you mess up; call in an expert, rely on others, repeat yourself, invest yourself, go above the requirements, and show them you are human, that you care. You will be better for it and you may end up strengthening someone's belief in you.

As for me, I am stil out of school, still seeing a doctor every two days, still taking a lot of pain medicine, and very, very emotional. But I am ok. We got the answers we were looking for, we have a path to follow, and we also were reminded just how incredibly precious life and the people we share ours with is. Thank you for sharg yours with me.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

But How is it Different this Year?

Being in my final year of probation as a new teacher means that I will only be observed once officially this year. That is not to say that I have not been observed on other occasions, but only once will I have to fill out the paperwork and set up a formal meeting to discuss the results and feedback of this observation. So I wonder, how will my classroom be different than previous observations to the casual observer?

1. I will not stand at the front of the room. In fact, the front of the room changes at all times so that students never feel pushed to the back or to the side.

2. I will move more. Since there is no front of the room, I move more around, engaging students in small discussions, keeping an eye on behavior, as well as trying to facilitate more interaction through my own movement.

3. I will not do all of the talking. This year it is not about me but about the students, so I need to facilitate and then get out of the way.

4. Students will move around. I was never a fan of desks, they stifled me as a child and I still lie down on a couch to read a book rather than sit, so my classroom reflects that; students should be able to be in positions where they can access learning the best way possible, whatever that may look like.

5. Students will have a voice. No longer am I the end all of all information so while I know the path my lesson will take, how we get there and what we end up exploring more deeply may change.

6. The end results may differ. Before the students would all produce a single product to show off their knowledge, now I realize that students can show learning through many different methods and will therefore be open to all of these.

7. Evaluation will be ongoing and never combined with a percentage or letter grade. While I may still have to produce a letter grade for my trimester report cards, these will not be part of our learning. Grades interfere with the real goal of the lesson which is to learn, not to receive an A or score 100%.

8. Mistakes will be encouraged. Instead of prepping my students beforehand to ensure no mistakes will be made by them or I, we will simply explore together and that means also embracing any mistakes or mishaps that come up naturally. After all, life mostly consists of lucky mishaps that shape our decisions and thus creates our futures.

9. Homework will not be assigned. Learning is extended beyond our classroom hours through discussion, blogging or reflection. Worksheets or packets are rarely used to practice a skill and instead students are encouraged to enjoy time outside of school so that they may be more productive learners in school.

10. This will not be a dog and pony show. We often discuss how an observation can become a stilted affair, created solely for the purpose of observation. I would rather have my observation be unscheduled or a surprise so that the real lesson can be viewed and discussed. I know I will be prepared for it since I have to be prepared every day to teach.

How different will your classroom be this year?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Question the Enforced and Inane

Hey Mrs. Ripp, I have to stay in for recess. Oh ok, why? Because I didn't have my parents sign my math test. Oh ok...

How often do we hear statements such as these in our classrooms. Those little remarks explaining why a certain consequence was being given to a student? I used to be that teacher,the one that punished students for not handing things in, forgetting signatures, or having a rough day. I thought that was what you did as a teacher; teach responsibility. And while it is true that we should help our students grow into more responsible children, we also have to make sure that the "punishment fits the crime."

When students are asked to stay in from recess because they left something at home, it simply does not make sense. In fact, you end up with a student that not only did not get a chance to get some fresh air, but also one who has resentment for being punished for something beyond their control. We do it all the time as teachers; assign work that isn't really for the student to finish but for the parents instead, and yet the students always pays the price when the work is not done. And we justify it all the time.

So this year I told myself to stop. No more keeping students in from recess, only if they needed and wanted help with something. No more taking away privileges because of something a parent didn't do. No more enforcing inane rules that I thought I had to enforce simply because that is what I had experienced. Now I question everything I do before I subject my students to it and I am happy I do. I trust my on judgment much more now and I also feel that the students view it as a fair environment, all building into a better community.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I'm a Loser

As the Edublog Award ceremony train passed right through my station tonight without an award or acknowledgement, I couldn't help but feel like a loser. A big loser, in fact. It wasn't that I had expected to win or even place, I am much too Danish to ever think highly of myself, but sometimes you let your imagination run away with you for a split second.

So there I was tonight, where I should be occupied with my insane 23 month old daughter, the surgery I am having tomorrow, or my husband who worked a 12 hour day. Instead, I found myself having a little pity party and it was sad to say the least. In fact, it was so pathetic that it made me think of why I have grown to despise awards in my classroom. You see, I felt like the outsider tonight. Like I was not cool enough to be recognized or even mentioned. Like the kid that sits along at lunch hoping someone will strike up a conversation. Like the kid that no matter how hard they try for the teacher to notice them, they just fall short.

So what is it with awards that can get even the most levelheaded anti-award teacher to behave like a love-stricken teenager hoping for their first kiss? Is it really that we just want someone to say we notice you? You make a difference? You work hard? We believe in what you do? I don't know. Because really those things are said to me by the amazing members of my family, friends, and my PLN often. Do we just not believe it when it comes from people that know us? Must it be from total strangers to feel like proper recognition? Or is it the group recognition? Of being given an award in front of others so that they know how important you are? I am still trying to dissect my emotions and find myself again. The one that doesn't have a ridiculously bruised ego, the one that feels like they belong and that others care. Either way, I am moving on, proud of my nomination, eager to add the winners to my feed, and strengthened in my resolve to not have awards or rewards in my classroom. After all, if a 30 year old teacher that knows better can get this silly over a missed reward then imagine what it does to a kid. Lesson learned again.

Glogster Challenge!

Take our Glogster Challenge! One of my fantastic students, Connor, came up with a Glogster challenge just in time for the holidays. Create your very own Christmas Glogster and send us a link to it. The winner will be picked Thursday December 23rd by Connor and will win a chance to be highlighted on our classroom blog!

If We Could Grant Wishes

Yesterday we had our winter break party with our first grade reading buddies.  Students listened to holiday music from around the world, ate aebleskiver (a Danish treat), and cut out snowflakes for a wish tree.  We told them to write their wishes for the new year on these snowflakes.  This morning as I spearated the glittered and glued together snowflakes, I read them.

I wish for an Ipad (hey, a child can dream), for a bunny, dvd's, games, world peace even.  I wish for a great year, for sleep, for more world peace (definitely a 4th grader).  A rat, a dog, a magic wand, flat screen tv's, Nintendo D.S., fish, a pool, and even a bigger house.  And then there it sat, glued to another wish, unassuming and small:  I wish I had more friends.

If only teachers had a magic wand...


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Mayor of West Middleton

The mayor of West Middleton works the crowds.  He is that kid, busy in the hallways saying hi to every kid, every teacher.  If he doesn't know your name that day he runs after you to ask you what it is.  And then he remembers.  He knows us all, whether veterans, brand-new, student teachers, substitutes.  He knows parents, siblings, and any new kid 10 minutes after they walk in the door.  He smiles, laughs, and pays attention.  He cares and he lets you know that he cares.

It's not an act, this welcoming thing; it is him, something in his nature that he cannot help.  Something that cannot be contained, as his teacher - trust me I have tried when we walk down the hallway.  Then I realized that it was only my sense of order that made me dislike these random outbursts of talk or stopping and hugging people.  I needed him to walk with me, not in front or behind me, not be around the corner when I needed him in line.  Now, I let him loose on the people, let him do his thing.  He never goes far, just far enough to greet, to spread that smile.  And for that I am thankful, he makes me a better person, a better teacher because he shows me every day what genuine interest does for another person.  He leads by example, and it is an example we should all follow; know everyone, greet them, hug them if you want, ask questions, and if you don't know their name it is ok to ask.  But most of all; remember them all and show them that you are happy they are here, happy they are with us, happy they came to school that day.  The world needs more kids like him.

Monday, December 13, 2010

If We Teach to the Test

If standardized tests determine how we teach, then students would probably:

  • Never raise their hand; after all they will prove their knowledge on the test.
  • Never explore around the topic, twisting it, turning it on its head and perhaps coming up with new questions.
  • Never ask different questions than what the teacher expects.
  • Not participate in discussion after one answer has been given since usually only answer is enough on a test.
  • Always be very, very quiet because to take a test there must be silence.
  • Always be cordoned off by privacy folders fore they must not cheat off each other.
  • Always know exactly where they rank and whether school is for them or not.
  • Realize that thinking creatively will hardly ever pay off.
  • Always ask what their grade and rank is and then flaunt it whenever they can since this is what a test-obsessed society deems important.
  • Be very god at filling out little bubbles inside the lines, making their mark and heavy, as well as erasing mistakes completely.
  • Never attempt to place an answer outside of a designated area.  After all, thoughts only get so much room to be explored.
  • Not really need a teacher, perhaps a scantron would be just fine.

When Students Decide

Spicy popcorn, wigwams, tipis, corn bread, blueberry muffins, bow and arrow, Aztelan homes, sugared apricots, and many other things were all the results of the students taking control of the Native American research and project.  To say I am impressed doesn’t even cover the level of genuine excitement I have about what the students mastered today.

Coupled with these wonderful projects were the presentations that began today.  Students all have to present their research in some shape to their classmates, plus be able to answer questions and engage an audience.  We discussed what the difference is between listening and active listening and stopped when the students felt the audience was becoming unengaged.

From the moment we started this project, I knew this was a different way of learning and one that would either be wondrous or disastrous.  I should have trusted the students completely because they have once again blown me away with their commitment to their projects and their hard work.  This is definitely a form of project we will try again.  And don’t worry; pictures are coming soon!


Saturday, December 11, 2010

Don't Judge that Bus

Those kids that come from that neighborhood, perhaps it is one bus, perhaps most of your school.  Whatever the numbers, there are always those kids.  The poor ones, the ones that wont have a real Christmas because there is no money, the ones we worry about because surely someone has to save them from themselves, from the cycle.  Those kids said with connotations, with meaning, with emphasis.

What shall we ever do for those kids, with those kids, to those kids?

And yet those kids may not be what we think they are.  Yes, they may come from a certain neighborhood, or arrive on a certain bus, walk a certain way, speak differently than me.  And yes, mom may be young or dad non-existent.  There may be holes, tears, too short of pants, missing backpacks, and free and reduced lunch.  But what there isn't is one story.  There isn't one thing we can know about those kids.  There is perhaps no need to fret, to worry, to save.  We are always trying to save those kids.  Sometimes what is needed is the lack of connotations, the lack of assumptions about life quality or needs.

Yes, they may come from that bus but that does not mean they need help.  They may come to school with that swagger but that does not mean that life will always be hard or that bad choices will be made.  It is time to stop making those assumptions about those kids.  Stop hiding behind trying to be a better person by "adopting" those kids as your project.  Treat them the same and if there is a need for help, help, but don't jump to conclusions, don't guess, ask, discover, and find out.  Those kids are just that; kids.

Veering Off the Chosen Lesson Path - or Why You Should Take a New Route

As college students when taught the craft of becoming a teacher, one thing is hammered into us again and again; the necessity of lesson plans. We are given graphic organizers to ensure that we account for every single possible thing; special needs, types of learing, beginning, goal, standards and on and on. I slaved over my mine, creating perfect fictitious classrooms that would need my supposed expertise to reach the goal.   It would always be me as the fierce director bringing students into learning, the keeper of the flame.

As a first year teacher, I continued my meticulous planning, always knowing the end goal and more importantly the exact path that I would take to go there.  Students were forced down my chute of learning so that they could reach their glorious destination, often not having time to take a different direction, a different approach.  I had curriculum to get through and by golly I would!

And then I realized what I was really doing.  By glossing over student questions, by forcing my path on the students, I was losing them.  I was losing their inquisitiveness, their creativity, their sense of learning style and most sadly, I was losing their trust in me as a teacher.  Why would they open up when I barely ever slowed down to listen to them?  It wasn't that I wasn't a decent teacher, I was, but that was it, decent.  No room for individuality, no room for new discoveries, just here is the goal, let's reach it.

Learning is always happening in any classroom you walk into.  But notice the different types of learning.  Is there room for student exploration?  For veering off the path?  For taking a totally different route altogether?  How stringent is the teacher with their lesson plan, is it followed minutely or used as a guide for the ultimate goal?  How loud are the students?  How engaged?  I was once asked by my principal what my goal for a particularly disastrous lesson plan was and I couldn't tell him, what I could tell him was the path I was going to take.  What a wake up call that was - thanks Mr. Rykal -know your goal, think of a path but then don't be afraid to go another route, to listen to the students,  let them shape the learning.  I promise, you will see the difference in excitement, in caring, and in learning.  Do you dare to take anther route?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sing the Praise of Other Teachers

We want to be a welcoming school, a place where all students feel safe, happy and inspired. We cherish our kids, greet them in the hallway and take a special interest in anyone who needs it or just happens to be in our path. We recognize achievements, we assemble and build community, togetherness and pride in ourselves and each other. We discuss how to do it better, more, bigger. How can we reach each kid to make them feel appreciated, acknowledged and valued? And yet, sometimes we forget about the teachers.

We are so busy always focusing on the achievements of the kids that the natural success of fellow staff members becomes something that slips our mind or is an entirely taboo topic depending on your staff climate. Why? Shouldn't teacher accomplishment, whether big or small, be the first place we start when we discuss success in our school? Don't we want to be part of an active community where you hear genuine praise in the hallways, classrooms and staff lounge? We forget to share or assumptions are made that no one wants to hear it. I some places, jealousy can rear it's ugly head and people learn to not share, to not divulge that they did well on something.

Enough of this fear of acknowledgement! Ban the temptation to not share or highlight. Praise others as you wish your students would praise each other. After all, our students learn best by example, think of the great learning experience it will be for them if they hear natural praise every day between staff members. Start small, be genuine, be brave and take the first step; tell someone you noticed, you cared, you were inspired. Praise someone and set the example, start a movement.

I Wasn't Born a Test Taker

I wasn't born a test taker; instead I himmed and hawed over every single possibility of multiple choice answer, overanalyzing the test makers intent, knowing that there often was more than one correct answer.  In Denmark, essays were the way we were judged, and yet, I knew that somehow I had to conform myself to whatever someone had decided was the proper way to analyze, summarize or infer.  Whatever the method, the result was always the same, never as good as I wanted even though I had done all of the supposed right things to score high.

Now with the release of the new test results once again labeling the US as "average" at best, I wonder, how this will affect my students; our future.  What new initiative will be developed in a hurry to push, push, push our students harder.  Perhaps Saturday's will become school days after all so that we can study for the test.  This obsession with testing and labeling, always ranking, as if those tests had something to do with the future success of these children.  They don't and I tell my students that.  Testing is just a snapshot of where you were at that moment in time, how well-rested you were, how focused, happy, engaged.  Not a true view of what you really know, what you are capable of.  Testing does not determine your future job, spouse, creativity or happiness.

I don't want to teach to the test.  I don't want to make students into test takers.  I want to help them become better, more creative, engaged, discover their talents, hone them, support them, inspire them.  I want them to discover many possible ways to answer questions, not just conform to the one chosen by someone else.  I want them to question.  I wasn't born a test taker but I became one.  I hope to spare that fate for my students.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Know the Power of "Hello"

Good morning, hello, hi... all small words that when left hanging in the hallway can have tremendous effects.  The power of a greeting, something our parents teach us to always reciprocate, is massive.  It can shape our mood for the rest of the day if met by the right caliber of person or leave us wondering about ourselves if unanswered.   So simple yet so powerful.

Yet, in hallways across America, teachers are reporting feeling isolated and genuinely uncared for whether it be through their own actions or by simple mistakes conducted by others that perhaps were too busy or just preoccupied.  So weigh the power of hello, a greeting, an acknowledgement.  Think about it, greet others, take the time to acknowledge that they are in your building, in your presence.  Don't be too busy, don't rush by, don't scowl or close yourself off.  Be the pebble that starts the wave of positivity rather than negativity. So say hello, mean it, perhaps even smile.  I am happy to see you today.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Why Top Down isn't Always Bad

This letter is part of a series of letters taking place between  Jeremy Macdonald @MrMacnology, a 5th grade teacher in Oregon, and Pernille Ripp @4thgrdteacher, 4th grade teacher in Wisconsin; two educators who for the first time are attempting a no grades classroom, as well as limited homework.  We share our thoughts and struggles with creating the best learning environment for our students so that others may learn something as well.  To see the other letters, please visit us here or here.

Hello again,
Initially I was going to start out with more questions in reply to your post, and yes, it is a total reflection of my personality, and then I thought why not reflect a little and then bombard you with questions later?
So I get the time restraint when it came to sharing student grades with them before report cards went home.  I send mine home tomorrow and getting to all 25 students last week was a stretch but I am so glad I did.  Each child was asked to reflect on their own grades - I have to give letter grades - and then meet with me.  The scale is simple A = Secure, B = developing and C = Beginning.  You know how I feel about students failing in 4th grade so that simply is not an option for a grade.  And besides, aren't we so vigorously trying to push our students further away from equating learning with a grade?  Anyway, this format turned out to be informative and wonderful.  Most students rated their knowledge level at the same point as I would have, some were way too harsh on themselves leading to in-depth conversations about self-esteem and math, in particular.  Some, of course, were not even quite sure what the grades meant and had therefore thought A's looked pretty good.  There were tougher conversations but in the end I felt good and I think the kids did too.  See, there will be no ugly surprises tomorrow.  No hiding report cards from parents.  Or pretending to not care about that stupid thing anyway.  I remember feeling like I betrayed the kids on their report cards in earlier years; where was their warning before this had to be taken home?  Instead, the students feel that they know why they are getting the grade they are getting and also that they have the responsibility for that grade.  No longer is the grade the final product of the trimester but rather the beginning of the next one.  What do we know and where do we need to go with it?  Relief...
Ok, I get the learning is learning and we must be excited about all of it.  But can't we just admit to ourselves that bringing technology into the room does appear more exciting than just plain old paper and pencil?  Of course, this is a broad generalization fore there are times when paper and pen are best, but come on, let's be honest here; those kids light up when they can incorporate anything tech into the lesson.  Perhaps in 20 years, paper and pencil will be the novel thing to do and will reclaim some of its lost glory.  
My final point about setting students up for disappointment leads me to another falsehood that we as teachers love to repeat to ourselves when we worry about passing students on the following year.  "All students will adapt and grow to love that classroom and learning environment!"  We pacify ourselves with that statement enough to where we can find ourselves repeating it when having discussions about different learning environments.  I think it is bogus.  I remember years that I hated going to school simply because the learning environment was stodgy and boring and nothing like what I was used to.  Of course, students are adaptable and flexible and all that, but shouldn't we have some sort of technology consensus or minimum of integration at a school at least?  And yes I am dreaming for I know what I am up against but sometimes top-down decisions can prove to be a blessing in disguise.  Now who to persuade on that?
And hey, Macdonald,"Ripp" is what one of my favoritest students on the spectrum calls me.  No titles, no formalities, just a name.  I wouldn't have it any other way.


Best New Blog Nomination

EduBlogs nominations are out and somehow my blog has managed to go to the next step of the nomination process for Best New Blog .  Honored, dumbfounded ad just a little bit shocked are all great words to describe this. I do not expect to win, after all, have you seen the list of people I am up against, but grateful to be placed in such excellent company.

So check out the nominations, cast your vote, and be heard.  Thank you for all of the support, I don't know how I managed to sneak into that prestigious group.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Perfect Classroom

Did you see those students? How focused and engaged they were? Did you see that quiet classroom, that looks to be the perfect classroom. My insides cringe. Quiet = learning, since when?

I used to be a believer in quiet. After all, if the students were not quiet how could they listen to all of my wisdom? After all, I was the one with the degree, the answers, the path, the years, and mostly the responsibility for any and all learning. I was a trained professional and they were just students, empty vessels ready to be filled.

And then I thought about all that energy put into saying "shhh...." into asking for silence, not to speak with partners, face me, me, me, me. But it wasn't about me and it never should have been. It is about the students and them finding their voice, the knowledge, the confidence to believe in themselves and their brains.

So my perfect classroom now: a little messy, (after all learning is kind if messy), student-owned, pods, choices and that wonderful noise of learning. There are still guidelines, we are not crazy, but there is life, excitement and joy. So if you walk by my room and think we are a little bit loud, hey, that just shows there is learning going on.

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