Thursday, April 28, 2011

How Not to Integrate Technology

After reading this wacky post "Encouraging Teachers to use Technology" I had to respond with a hearty congratulations!  After all, this article  highlights many of the things we so diligently try to avoid when introducing anything unknown to people; rewards, punishment, fear.  So let's think about it for a moment; how could you make sure that no one wants to ever integrate technology:

  • Outdated equipment - with scrunched school budgets and schools falling into disrepair, this is a common culprit.  Who wants to use technology when the computer looks like an extra from the original 90210?  Well some people make do and even do great things but to get more people to truly integrate you may have to invest a little bit of money.
  • Listening sessions only on how to use it.  Teachers love to talk and boy when explaining technology and how cool it is, we can get rather winded.  How about letting people try it, after all, my 2 year old didn't ask for a manual with my iPad, she simply pushed some buttons and now she is pretty adept and very eager.
  • Forcing people to use technology.  Nothing like a good punishment session if you don't integrate technology.  I know how stubborn I am and even if something seems really amazing, if you tell me I have to put it in my classroom most of the time I will resent it.  Call me stupid but this resistance may be part of human nature.
  • Telling people how cool it is that this one teacher is using technology.  This is another variation on the forcing people to use it.  Sure that teacher may be doing some really cool things with it, but that doesn't mean others need to.  In fact, I think the more you tell others about all the cool things, the more some people will resist.  It is all in the delivery of the message.
  • Not asking the people.  This happens all the time, there is extra money and someone smart spends it all on new technology without asking the people who are going to use it whether it is wanted or not.  Surprise, here's another thing you didn't want.  Often teachers would love more technology in their classroom, perhaps just not the same as what other people want.  I for one don't particularly want a Smartboard but waive some iPads in front of me and I will be forever grateful.  Ask your recipients, give them ownership, and it will be much more welcomed.
So to not be to negative, here are my suggestions for how to encourage more technology use:
  • Lead the way through informal conversations.  I love tech and I spend a lot of time searching out new things for my students and yet I don't tell a lot of people about it.  Why?  Because they may not be interested, however, if someone shows a little bit of interest, I will gladly show, talk, and teach them about it.  This way it is their choice to learn not me burdening them.
  • Give us time.  More tech means more time needed to investigate and play.  This year my school received 8 new Flip's from the PTO and it wasn't until we had time to play with them through a PD session that they started getting used.  Don't just tell people about it, show them and let them do the doing.
  • Have your students be teachers.  My students are the best proof of good tech usage and they will gladly show you just how cool something is (vice versa they will tell me when something sucks).  They have turned into the best ambassadors for why teachers should integrate tech into their classroom and for that I am ever grateful.  Give them a voice and watch them find an audience.
  • Emphasize integration, not tech for tech's sake.  I don't have student computers in my classroom so that my students can type their papers on them, that is just an added benefit.  Rather these computers are our research stations, connection makers, and overall learning centrals.  We use them when it feels natural or when it is necessary, not because we have to, but because they fit into what we are doing.
What am I missing?  How does great tech integration get encouraged in your schools?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Yes, I Test My Students - As Long as its Worthwhile

Image found here

I have tests in my room... there I said it.  This reward-disliking, limited homework, freethinking teacher actually dares to test her students.  To some this is surprising, to others borderline offensive, and yet to me it makes perfect sense.  See, I believe it is all in what you do with the test.

I used to give tests just so I had a grade to end home and record in my grade-book.  The test was always the final product, the destination of our learning journey.  If a student failed the test or did poorly, it was not my fault, but rather that of the student obviously having poor study skills.  My second year teaching I realized that maybe it wasn't the student but instead my teaching that was the real cause of their poor test results, and finally this year I realized that it was all me, and even more so, that I actually had power of the format of the tests and what answers they provided.  So this year I took the power away from the tests and gave it back to my students.

Tests in my room take many forms.  There are the dreaded WKCE tests, our state's standardized testing which take up a whole week of our time in October.  That week is tough for me because this represents the type of tests that I immensely dislike.  Tests that offer no chance for redoing, learning, or even results to be worked with.  We take them, lock them up, send them off and then get results in March - yes, at least 4 months later.  They also test on curriculum that we haven't even had a chance to teach yet in 4th grade, so we try to cram that into our poor students just so they can regurgitate it when needed, which often they can't.  Those tests don't make for any deep mastery, they don't create appreciation of the world for the students, or even provide them with real learning opportunity.  It's a take and forget test, that just happens to decide funding for my district.  Sure we try to make it fun with singing, bubble gum and other projects, but still they are something to be lived through and forgotten about, sorry.  Those tests deserve all of the bad publicity they get.

There are valuable tests though, such as the pre-test and post-test I give in math.  Some people may scoff at the notion of pre-testing students on curriculum they have yet to be taught but experience has taught me that done the right way, this is incredibly valuable for the teacher and for the student.  It simply is all a matter of how it is presented to the students.  We discuss how this pre-test is a way for me to guide my teaching, that anything they don't get they leave blank, and to not spend a lot of time on it.  If they get something, great, if they don't, great.  Either way it helps me teach them better.  There have been units when a student or two has mastered everything before it has even been taught, knowing that information gave me a chance to offer enrichment rather than the same material.  Those pre-tests let me know when students lack background knowledge or when the whole class is ready for harder concepts.  Those pre-tests also give my students a chance to see what is to come and some even comment on how excited they are to learn something.  These pre-tests are the same as the post-tests, which means I can compare their growth.  How did they do, where are the holes, what did I miss?  I always make it a point to show the students their growth from to pre to post; they often can't believe how much they have learned.  Those tests inform and push me harder.

Then there are the tests that naturally evolve.  In science rather than a test on the structures of life, my students made an incredible crayfish documentary.  They chose to research and document all of the knowledge they had garnered with the world, rather than put pencil to paper, and became real experts in the doing.  If I ever need proof that they learned something, I just have to watch the 6 minute video.  Or how about in social studies when we learned about Native Americans for the 3rd time in their short school career.  Rather than a formal test, I told them to research whatever they wanted as long as it had to do with Native Americans in WI.  The result: corn bread, models, posters, and time lines were some of the chosen projects.  We don't do spelling tests but rather test each other when we cannot spell a word.  We don't do grammar tests but instead create grammar hunts throughout the school.  We don't do tests that seem purposeless, but rather embrace those that give us something and disregard those that don't.  We discuss as a classroom how we would like to show off our learning and we find ways that suit all students.  That doesn't mean we never test, it just means they become more meaningful to us.  As an example my students asked me to test their knowledge in social studies about pioneers because they were unsure of what they needed to remember, so I did.  Tests don't have to be rigid.

Which brings me to my final discovery in my classroom; tests are not the end.  In my room, they are another step in our journey and only a tool used to figure out where our holes are.  So once a test has been given, it is given back for correction.  Students may use their books, their brains, each other, whatever they can to solve a problem.  Often the mistakes are careless, soemtimes not, but almost always they are fixed and the right knowledge emerges.  Tests are not meant to be the end all for me, they are meant to inform, so when I let my students work with them again I am living that philosophy.  Students know that they get a second chance, because let's face it, sometimes a question is misread or life is distracting, yet they still try their hardest the first time.

So I return to the point of tests; are they to inform our instruction or to provide us with grades?  I choose the latter every time.  Inform me please, make  me a better teacher, help my students learn more, and don't ever stop us from enjoying the adventure that is school.


We are just Facilitators

Image borrowed from Dream Quotes

The science Olympiad is this Friday and each class is to make a banner for the opening parade. After much discussion my students settled on a zombie holding a Danish flag with the headline "Mrs. Ripp's TerRippic Kids." Cute, except as I lay awake last night, I realized that's not them. Those words describe me, not our fantastic classroom. And while I appreciate the fact that my students came up with the idea, it just didnt fit. So today we opened it up again and I suggested Mrs. Ripp's Globetrotters, the kids loved it and immediately concocted a design for it that included all of the students. My idea became theirs as they put their own spin on it and quickly excluded me from the process. It fit.

Globetrotting is what we have been doing this year, reaching out beyond our classroom walls and inviting the world in. From more than 600 blogs on our kidblog, to Skype, making videos for other classrooms, to just a general sense of being global students - that's what we have done. I had the initial idea to become part of the bigger world but the kids made it their own. Without their enthusiasm and bountiful ideas, it would have been just another dead idea, another feeble attempt at being global.

So in the end I realize another important lesson this year; our classrooms aren't about us, it's about the students and the journey they are on, the places they will go in our care. We are just lucky enough to be part of the experience and to hopefully have some wisdom to pass on to them. Really in the end though, the identity of the classroom can only be shaped so much by a teacher, which I think great teachers realize. That they get to help shape the classroom but not be the focal points. The students are the souls of the classroom, we are just the facilitators.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Don't Look at Me - Why Blogging is Not for Self Promotion

Perceptions abound when you come out as a blogger.  Particularly if you happen to blog about education like I do.   Some people embrace what you do and find it fascinating, while others shy away from you afraid that they somehow will end up in your blog.  Others just condemn, perhaps not to your face, but in conversations or comments, either way, perceptions about blogging and the people who do it are plenty.

Today, Lyn Hilt wrote an amazing piece regarding why she blogs as a principal.  If you haven't read it you should, in fact, it is much better than this piece.  A comment in it though started my wheels spinning, Dwight Carter wrote,  "Excellent post and a wonderful defense of blogging as a reflective practice."  That statement really struck me, "defense" indeed, how often do we defend the act of blogging itself, as if you are not supposed to reflect, or at the very least not in public?  This perception then of bloggers taking something private, the inner-workings of a classroom, and publicizing it can therefore not always be understood by others who do not blog.  In fact, often, it is viewed as a sheer act of self promotion.  And yet, I find that hard to believe being a blogger myself.  I don't do it to promote what I do, in fact, if I had taken my mother's advice I would have still made the changes in my classroom but kept my mouth shut about it.  Instead I chose to reflect openly and honestly abut my decision, my journey, my mistakes and my successes.   Put it all out there for others to judge, to inquire, and perhaps to inspire.

So I think it is time we stop tearing down others for decisions that they make that perhaps we do not understand.  I think it is time we view blogging as another way to reflect upon educational practices and not see it as a tool to get attention, or even a tool used for condemnation.  The bloggers I follow don't set out to divide educators but rather start a conversation about what is happening in classrooms across the world.  Why this is not only viewed as an asset is hard to fathom.

So I guess I am done defending my blogging, instead I want to celebrate all that it has provided me with in the last year.   And I am also done negatively viewing those that don't blog.  I know many exceptional teachers that reflect in other ways than blogging, who would never think to put their thoughts into cyberspace.  This does not make them bad teachers, perhaps just more private.  I also know some teachers who blog whose teaching style scares me a little, yet I applaud their effort in bringing it all out there.

So once again, we can be the change we want to see:  Blogging shouldn't be the thing that divides educators, it should be viewed as yet another way educators work and reflect.  What makes one person stronger will in the end strengthen us all.  Isn't that what we want; a strong group of educators?

Hello Innovation Day!

When I first started teaching 4th grade, I must admit, I underestimated my students.  I knew that they were capable, but did not realize just how creative, innovative, and eager for a challenge this age of students can be.  (In fact, I would argue that any student really fits that description if we provide them with the opportunity, but that's another post).  So this year as I re-honed my philosophy and knew that I wanted to create more hands-on, student-led explorations throughout the year, I knew we had to end the year with something magical.  Some sort of project that would show me and my students just how far we have traveled in our road to become independent, creative, problem solvers and thinkers.  Hello Innovation Day!

Innovation Day is one of those projects I wish I had imagined, but instead that honor goes to many corporations before me (Google FedEx Day), in fact, I cannot even take credit for bringing it to a school setting, other teachers I follow on Twitter have already done it.  And yet this will be the first one for me, for my students, and I am more than thrilled.  The idea is simple and can be adapted to any setting.

On May 9th, my students get to work on whatever they choose.  The requirements are simple; they must learn something, they must produce something, and it has to be done in one day.  All year, I ask my students what they would like to learn about and although I have been able to incorporate many of those items into my teaching, there are some I have not gotten to - Irish Castles, Big Ben, and more about animals are some examples.    Here is their chance.  The preparation has been minimal, students had to fill out this sheet (which is created by Josh Stumpenhorst and minimally adapted by me) and they need to think about their product.  In class we have been discussing various ideas and students have sought me out to discuss process.  That's it.

My job this day will be to document the learning through video and pictures, and also to be of assistance if needed.  The students are supplying most of the materials, and are doing all of the work.  Ideas being floated around are varied such as researching snowflake patters, building a t-rex model, or creating a paper zoo - whatever they can imagine and build.  And me?  Well as my students reminded me on Friday; we don't really need you Mrs. Ripp.  Ad what a glorious thing that is to hear.

Friday, April 22, 2011

A Connection is Made

It all started with a question, a small idea really, and one word "Community." Take two sets of children, happy in school, each faced with their own busy lives, full plates, and small victories. What if we turned them loose with a camera, with their own creativity and asked them to show off their community? That is exactly what my friend and inspiration Matt and I did for our classes. What started as just a way to connect two seemingly very different classes morphed into something bigger than just a simple hello via Skype. Instead our students were asked to really think about what sets their community apart from others, and how do you showcase that to others that may have no idea where you are?

What followed after that initial conversation of idea was a lot of hard work and so much enthusiasm. Neither one of us have the luxury to suspend curriculum but had to find a way to fit it in, not just because it was fun, but because it was worthwhile. So I told the kids cautiously, would they get excited as well or would they roll their eyes at yet another harebrained Mrs. Ripp idea? Their excited chatter told me once again this was going to be great.

For 3 weeks the kids worked both in class and outside of class creating their video.  They knew that Matt's students spoke Spanish so they wanted our sometimes shy Spanish speaking students to take a leadership role in each group.  I was also told that i was not needed, after all, they had Google translate if they needed to figure something out and they knew how to shoot the video.  Donations came in for the care package we were sending out their with some real Wisconsin stuff, and then finally; the last shot was filmed, the movie pieced together, the package dropped off.  

So I am excited to present "Our Community" - a video inspired, created, and carefully edited by the students in my classroom for our friends in Mr. Foteah's class.  In the end it wasn't really about the video, it was about the community we shared making it and the community we reached out to.


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Thought on Shutting Doors

When that door shuts, I come alive, not because I am afraid to show my true colors with an open door, or because I am worried what strangers might think, but instead because then I can truly focus on what is the most important; the here, the now, the kids. So when I lose my focus and worry too much about what others think it shows up in my teaching, sneaks right in and settles in the back of my mind. I must forget to take my own advice at times; choose who you give your attention to. Choose who you give power to. Choose who you let lift you up or bring you down. Because those choices also influence your students, those choices we seemingly make separately from our classrooms are never quite separate. We carry it all with us, whether we want to or not. Or at least I do.

So I choose happiness. I choose to focus on everything that is astounding in my life. The incredible deep love from my husband, the unmistakable faith from my mother, and my daughter's incredible joy for life. The student who finally gets it, or cracks me up with a new joke. The coworker that shares yet another success in their teaching or brings up a new idea. I choose to focus on my own mistakes and weaknesses because those I can do something about. And I choose my own words more carefully so to not bring others down.

So now when I shut that door I also make a conscious effort to make myself open it again. To let the world back in, to show those kids that I am there wholeheartedly no matter what passes by our door. To remind myself that my choices are their choices, and that's the way it should be.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Is Twitter a Cop Out?

I am a Twitter fanatic, if you ask anyone, in particular my husband, they will tell you how often I quote something that I learned abut from this social media or how this or that idea came from there. Twitter has enriched my life in ways that I would never imagined when I first signed on a few years ago. In fact, Twitter has radically changed the way I teach and the way I think. Not bad for 140 characters.

As I get more involved with Twitter and the people that I connect with though, I am starting to wonder whether Twitter to me has become the ultimate cop out? By reaching out through the internet, limiting myself mostly to blog posts (which are pretty one-sided) and 140 character tweets, am I shutting off real face-to-face collaboration? You see Twitter doesn't talk back all that much or go to the teacher's lounge and roll its eyes. Twitter doesn't go to your principal laughing at the new hare-brained idea that was just presented. In short, Twitter doesn't make me take a risk. If I offer up an idea I seldom get negative feedback, instead some people take the time to praise it and often comment. I do the same for others, in fact, I hardly ever discuss something in negative terms unless everyone else is. So Twitter becomes the ultimate safety net where we are not forced out of our comfort zones but instead selectively choose who we care to share with and listen to. But I wonder whether that is "real life?" Or does it even need to be?

It struck me today as I read one of my student's blog posts about what was missing in 4th grade. Her comment was that she wished we did more with the other 4th grade classes. And she is so right; that is missing from this year. And not because we don't want to, the initiative just never gets taken. Instead we create global connections which have been incredible parts of our school year, yet perhaps we forgot about our local connection in the bigger picture. bAnd yet it is those local connections that radically determine our day, it is those local connections that see all our flaws and strengths, that see us grow without a lens. Those people that can have the most profound effect on us.

At school when I have an idea I have to find people willing to participate in it, someone whom I trust enough to listen to me and who will then weigh their options. I have to make my case and put myself out there for possible rejection, and it hurts when something gets shot down. Yet it is through these awkward moments of self-selling that we become bigger people and a tighter knit school community. Let's face it, it takes real courage to speak up at a staff meeting surrounded by your everyday peers. Does it take courage to speak up on Twitter?

So I guess I leave you with this question; has Twitter strengthened your local relationships as well or has it made it easier for you to forget about them? Are we all, in fact, just hiding behind our computers waiting for someone like-minded to come and find us? I am not sure anymore.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Mother's Tale

When I was 15, I hated my mother.  In fact, I hated almost everything.  Anger, sadness and oh so loathing of myself emanated and surrounded me every day for years.  Words flew like daggers, piercing indiscriminately whomever and whatever came in my path.  I was a child who suffered in their own self-pity, one who wallowed in misery, and lost friends, alienated family and tried to make everyone else's life as miserable as I perceived my own. And yet my mother stood by me.  She didn't change her course, her faith in me, her utmost belief that the little girl that had been the last, would one day come back to her.

People like my mother do not appear often in one's life.  She is selfless without being depreciatingly so.  She is witty, charming, and very very smart.  She is beautiful in a way that requires little effort.  She is strong, and she is a believer in strength for all.  She is fair, she is opinionated, and she carries a grudge, but she knows when to let go and forgive, even a child that sets out to hurt.

As a teacher, this lesson sticks with me every day.  Our students may lash out with words that are meant to destruct, destroy and hurt, and yet I stand by them, knowing that they too are momentarily lost on their path in life but one day they will return to me.

Tonight my mother was awarded the University of Wisconsin Academic Excellence in Teaching Award.  We were there to see her accept it and there to cheer.  My mother passes her lessons of love, curiosity, and inventiveness on to students every day and for once someone finally acknowledged just how incredible she is.  So thank you to the most important woman in my life, thank you to the one who taught me what it means to live with grace and to believe fervently that we make a difference.  We speak of teachers as role models, and yes, my mother is mine, but she is also many others'.  Thank you for standing by and standing up when I needed it.  Thank you for kicking in and kicking butt when it was deserved.  I am the product of a strong woman.  I hope my daughter will say the same about me.


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

May I Have Your Attention

Attention; one of the most powerful gifts you can offer someone. When we care about a person, we give them our attention as the main way of showing it. Attention when doled out can make someone experience deep emotions whether in a great way or not. Attention when handled carelessly can inspire someone to believe misplaced intentions or that we care less than we do. Paying attention is a way of transferring power to the person we are paying attention to, and that power is, well, more powerful than we can even fathom.

As a society we strive to categorize and be categorized. Through our labels we determine our social circles, our place in the community, and certainly our own self-worth. Every label we either bestow upon ourselves or are given comes with a set amount of societal power. Through our profesion we receive a certain amount of power societally predetermined, as a woman I may receive less power than if I were male, and don't even get my started on the power determined by our skin color. In a perfect world we wouldn't be prejudged, or categorized, before someone knows us well but it appears we are all either too busy or wired in such a way that it happens despite our best intentions. So every day we choose to give power to other people through our attention to them and that power shift can either benefit us or harm us. How much time have I spent worrying about someone's impression of me; more power to them. How much time have I spent about how people will view me; more power relinquished. How much time have I spent paying attention to empty celebrities, politicians, or people I will never ever interact with in any positive manner? Way too much.

So how do we change the way we offer up power to people who do not matter? How can we stop being sucked in by those that mostly do harm? In this politically charged America, it seems we need to dust off the civility but where? So from now on, I want to be sparser with my attention. I want to give it fully every day to those that mean the most; family, friends, my school community. I will strive to remove my share of given power to people who spew negativity, to people who only thrive when there is misery to be discussed, to those who do not mean well. We may not be able to change society and the uneven power held by people, but we can change the share we control. Attention is an incredible gift; give it to those that matter.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Have Hope

DevineMusic.org.uk Photo Credit

Some people say that they are tired of fighting.  That this is the end of education.  That the reform has gotten so far out of hand that there is no more room for common sense, for creative thinkers, for partnership.  Some people say that our students will suffer, and yes I agree, but some see no end to it all.  No winning, no change, just more tests, more papers, more, more, more - with less.

I say there is hope.  That amongst all of this fear, all of this uncertainty, we can still look at our students and see that spark.  That they know we suffer through testing with them and we teach them to be resilient.  We teach them that sometimes life asks you to do things that  make no sense, and we must get through it with grace, valor, and creativity.

So when it all seems to be too much, too crazy, too little, too late, think of the students.  Think of what we do for them every day when they enter their rooms at school, when we tell them good morning, when we end the day by saying thank you.  Thank you for being part of this, thank you for being part of something that is bigger than us, for placing your faith in me as your teacher.  For placing your faith in this school and this wonderful learning journey.  Have hope; our students do every day.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Challenge to All

I was the new kid in town 4 times before I turned 14.  I hated being the new kid.  My sister, Christine, was a dazzler.  She made new friends simply because she arrived, she drew people to her, and she still does.  I was the awkward kid that kind of looked like a boy, had huge feet, and was way too serious for her age.  Not a great combination for dazzling new people.  So when I first joined Twitter, I felt the clammy hand of past embarrassment gain hold of me.  What if no one cared?  What if no one responded?  What if no one followed?  I want to say that I joined Twitter to learn, which I did, but I also joined the blogging and tweeting world to connect with people, and it is this connection that keeps me coming back every day.  It's the connection that urges me to get others to join, that makes me write my heart out on this blog, and that makes me push myself into new challenges.  But what if you just can't make that connection?

There were a couple of people who immidiately took me under their wing Lisa Dabbs @Teachingwthsoul, Edna Sackson @WhatEdSaid and Joan Young @Florishingkids.  If it hadn't been for them, I don't think I would still be tweeting.  So as I look at my own follower count and see it grow way beyond this shy girl's expectations, I wonder, who can I reach out to and how?  How can we make deeper connections, especially with those people that like me felt like the new kid in town?  How can we let people know that Twitter is all about connections and not to be afraid to reach out?

I think a movement has gained momentum lately spearheaded by Katie Hellerman who posted this incredible video: The Connection Challenge.  This then sparked an amazing post by Jabiz Raisdana called "Next Level" which urged us all to reach out and open up.  Cale Birks came up with the idea of the Ten Picture Tour of our schools, which you can follow on Twitter under #10PIXTR. And today Justin Tarte wrote a great post asking what can we do to keep the momentum going called "It's All about Sustainable Momentum.." 

So I have been wanting to open up, after all, I am way to honest on my blog anyway.  And the one world that we often keep hidden is our home, afterall, we can hide behind our computers. What if we did the 10 picture of our homes instead?  Wouldn't that also provide another layer to our connection?  If you see the mess I sit in every day when I blog, will it make you know me better?  So I offer up this challenge:

Do a 10 picture tour of your home.  Nothing fancy, I don't expect masterpieces.

Post it on your blog and tweet it out using the same hashtag #10PIXTR (I hope that's alright).

 Let's see if we can take this connection one step further.


Friday, April 8, 2011

Bring Back the Thinking

One of the biggest struggles in my classroom and teaching is how to infer.  This vast concept of being able to process information and knowledge to produce an answer is a lifeskill, one of those daunting tasks as a teacher that we must accomplish making sense of for our students.  I don't think the students are the problem, in fact, they are quite creative in their thinking; it is the educational system as a whole that is to blame for this.

With an emphasis on tests we teach students there is only one packaged answer, at least at the elementary level.  We do not teach them that the answer can be deeper than just one sentence or that their answer may differ from ours.  Why?  Because you cannot measure that on a test.  A test requires one bubble filled in or writing that fits into someones rubric.  A test requires conformity in our thinking and particularly in our creative problem-solving skills.  Tests do not like when we debate or argue various points.  Tests urge simplicity in our instruction.

That is not to say that all tests are bad.  We often discuss how it is what you do with the information that measures the worth of a test, and yet, tests hinder us from doing exceptional things in the classroom on a daily basis.  That urgent need to constantly check for progress through a test experience, stiffles students in their quest to become bigger and better thinkers, and to help create inferences.  SO most of our instruction is teaching to the test, math has one answer, when we ask questions they almost always have one answer as well.  Teacher bias means a need for student thinking to line up with their own interpretation, so it becomes right versus wrong.   After all, how many of us after the correct answer has been given, stop to ask whether there are other correct answers?

So why am I so hung up on inferences?  Well, they require that one gathers a lot of information, mixes it up with background knowledge, and then draws a new conclusion.  Inference requires confidence in ones own qualities as a thinker, as an independent creator.  Tests do not teach confidence.  My instruction attempts to, yet I am constantly battling students who think that there is just ONE answer.  After all, that is what they have been taught.  So if they miss that one true answer, then they must be stupid.  It appears that we, by pushing tests on our students, become the creators of our own demise; students who have no confidence in their abilities to learn.  And by "We" I mean the system as a whole.  In our incessant quest to measure, we are dumbing down our student population, urging them not to think creatively but rather stick to the known, the facts, the things that can be measured.  We are making them believe that the world has a right and wrong answer in every scenario, but it doesn't.  No wonder some of our most successful thinkers did not feel the urge to complete college.  We have to get past the one answer tests to help our students.  We have to get past the constant need for progress measurement.  Get back to teaching.  Get back to discussion.  Get back to creative solutions.  It is time to bring the thinking back in education.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Ten Picture Tour - Plus One

Inspired by three fantastic people Cale Birk @birklearns, Katie Hellerman @TheTeachingGame and Jabiz Raisdana @Intrepid Teacher, I am happy to open up and share 10 pictures + 1 of my school environment.  So this is West Middleton Elementary...

The long hallway that I walk countless times a day.  Our building has been added to  3 times at least, each time it seems, adding another hallway.

As the founder of the Global Read Aloud, we have the Little Prince watching over us and all of the connections we make around the globe.

A very unmessy desk day, usually I have piles of stuff my students want me to watch or read, as well as all their work.  However, I leave a clean desk every single night - sick habit.  Notice my daughter's picture on the computer, I change it weekly so the kids can see her too.

The school lies off a busy road leading out of Madison but my window looks into the playground area.  I have the most divine sunlight come in and we almost never have all of our artificial lights on in the room.

We are taking part in the Students Rebuild crane folding, I never knew how to fold origami before this and the kids are way better than I am.  It has been amazing to see student leaders emerge in this and the kids get fired up over helping others.

Being a native Dane I was raised on the fairy-tales of Hans Christian Andersen so a big thrill of mine is the annual fairy tale unit I do.  We go all the way back to the gruesome versions and then discuss the moral of the story from back then.  Right now we are reading "The Little Mermaid."

A special collection of gifts for a care package we are mailing to Mr Foteah's class in New York City - Matt, no peeking!  

A Venn diagram given to me by my favorite Nolan.  He surprised me with it on our last day together as a split class.  One circle is him, the other is me.  If I ever have a bad day; this is what matters.

Another reference to The Little Prince reminds me every day what my teaching philosophy is; if the kids fail, it is my fault.

They put me in the kindergarten wing, which means I get to look at incredible colorful art every day.

A glimpse at our office run by the amazing Sue.  Our school is fighting bullying and 5th graders have put up slogans all over.
 For other amazing 10 picture tours make sure you check out:
@mmhoward: http://bit.ly/gIjcDg@johnnybevacqua: http://bit.ly/gxJDqH
@birklearns: http://tiny.cc/18o9s@justintarte: http://tiny.cc/kawd1

@thetheachingGame:  http://ow.ly/4vGcW 


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Lesson from Dora the Explorer

Image taken from Nickelodeon

It appears that when colleges panic or run out of ideas of how to teach, they take their cue straight from Dora the Explorer when it comes to teaching people how to teach.  I reached this conclusion at about 5:30 AM this morning as my daughter insisted on watching another episode.  You see, bear with me here, but Dora asks her audience for participation - my daughter does not participate, so silence fills the void.  Dora then asks for affirmation in her answer, still silence, sometimes "right" squeaks from my two-year old.  Classic call and response.  Isn't this the same approach we are first taught in college when we learn how to be effective teachers; ask a  question, then reaffirm the answer?  So what's the problem, after all, Dora is successful?  Well, when you ask a very simple question, you receive simple answers.  And sure many colleges flaunt Blooms Taxonomy and points to it for inspiration, but day-to-day how many of us really reach deeper level thinking?

Instead we ask the simple questions, not quite yes or no, but close, and then when we perhaps do receive an answer we reaffirm by restating, and then we feel great.  Look at how much they are learning!  Now Dora can be excused in this matter, after all her target audience is 2 to 3 year olds who are just learning the language.  We cannot.  We are meant to ask questions that do not always appear straightforward; clear yes, but not always with an easy answer.  One of my biggest challenges has been to kick myself out of easy question land and and instead answer most questions with another question.  Dora never does that, she waits patiently the appropriate wait time (2 seconds roughly) and then squeaks "right?"  My daughter patiently waits for the action to continue, she is trained to know that at some point Dora will speak again.  Our students know that we too will fill the silence, if they stay quiet or passive long enough, we will take over and give them all of the answers.

If we do not heighten our questioning skills in the classroom, we create an audience of learners.  One child may be brave enough to answer our question, yet the others remain passive, knowing that either way, the answer will be given to them.  What if we didn't provide the answer?  What if we stopped talking?  Instead offering up deeper-level questions and when we don't have any, turn the table.  Which questions do the students have?  Could we move our classrooms away from call-and-response, reaffirmation, or even just mere audience participation?  Could we make our students engage by simply changing our own engagement?

Who knew, Dora had such deep lessons embedded. 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Dream

I dream of being a teacher that learns along with her students.  I dream that for my children to soar I must soar along with them.  That we shall reach our dreams through hard work, diligence, and creativity.  I dream to be the teacher that says "yes" instead of "no,"  "do it" rather than "stop," "dream it" instead of "hmmm."  I dream of a classroom where students are engaged, on the floor, in chairs, on top of desks, busy learning because that is what they want to do not just what they are expected to do.  I dream of a school that encourages collaborations and even gives us time to do it knowing that we are only as strong as our weakest idea.

I dream of a classroom where student questions come before teacher lesson plans.  Where the goal may have been set but the journey is always being recreated, invented, or totally changed.  I dream of a school where children cannot wait to come to class because they know that they will leave there being better, more, bigger somehow.

I dream to be a teacher of all students, where culture and heritage is embraced.  Where differences are respected, accepted and then used as a strength to unite rather than to seperate.  I dream of a room where the students feel like they belong, they they are cared for, that they are loved and that their voice always, always matter.

I dream of a system where the students are not just numbers, but whole people, where we encourage individuality even in our teaching and cater to all needs, not just the ones that suit our teaching style the best.  I dream of a job where experimentation is encouraged, expected and always respected.  Where ideas are discussed, turned upside down, and shared without fear or judgment.  I dream of being in a job that is respected for what it gives to the community, for what we do every day for our students.  I dream that there is a place for me where these dreams become reality.  Where I will get to experiment with all the dreams I have, knowing that students are the ones who benefit so that they too can become dreamers.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Peter, Sit Up and Listen - Or Why Using Student Names in Punishment only Backfires

Joe, you need to pay attention.  Sit up, Peter!  Lisa, what happened there?  All day and every day, we use our students names when they are off task, when they are fiddling, sleeping, or simply not performing to the high standard we have set for them.  We make snap decisions, judge them, and punish them as we continue on with our lesson.  We don't always have the time to dig deep so we assume we know why they are fiddling, we assume we know why they are not paying attention, and so we correct, coerce, call out their names until they are with us again.  

Their names.  Something that is so intricately linked with who they are as a budding person.  Their names so linked with their identities.  And yet we use them to our advantage, simply to remain in control of the classroom.  One more tool to make sure all eyes are on me!

This week I asked my students to finish the sentence: "Being a good teacher means..." and what Nathan wrote really hit home: "Don’t yell out the kids name that does something wrong."  At first, I scoffed at this notion, after all, what else are we supposed to do as teachers when our students are off task?  Calling out their names is one of the most efficient ways to re-direct them because that is really all we are doing, right? Wrong, calling out a student's name in front of the whole class means that the whole class knows that the student is not doing what they ought to.  Calling out a name means that what one student is doing (or not doing) becomes the focus of the entire class.  Yes, you achieve your goal of attention redirection, but you also publicly humiliate that child.  It is time to stop with the name calling.

So what can one do instead, because we all know, there are times when even the most attentive student gets off-track

Well, I first re-evaluate myself, after all if they are spacing out, what am I doing to cause it? After all; if I was actually doing something interesting they might be well interested.  

If I find that I am indeed offering up something interesting, I wonder if they need a body break?  Even the most exciting topic becomes mundane after I have spoken about it for more than 10 minutes in my good "preacher" voice.

If this doesn't seem to be the root of the problem, then perhaps, a gentle tap on the shoulder or a silent hand signal can help the student re-direct?  Often, I can do this from across the room, catching only the eye of the student in question and helping them re-focus.

When this fails, and sometimes it does, particularly if the student is quite engaged with the drawing or thing they seem to be doing, then I either walk in their direction and whisper in their ear, or I simply stop speaking.  Silence is one of the greatest tools a teacher has in their toolbox for attention; after all, students are not used to teachers being quiet!  

And sometimes all of this fails, and that is when I am reminded that my students live full lives that sometimes interfere with our school day.  This is when I take the time to stop and talk and ask if everything is alright, is there anything I need to know?  Sometimes they are just so excited about something happening that they cannot focus, other times it is lack of sleep, of food, or they are distracted by life situations.  Sometimes, they will just tell you they are having an off day.  That is alright too, after all, we all have off days.

This isn't a perfect system, nor is it intended to be.  It is rather one more step in learning how to be a better teacher, one that doesn't cause embarrassment for their students, one that takes the time to figure out the real reason behind distractions and then works with the student rather than just dolling out punishment.

So once again, my students teach me how to be a better teacher.  I should not be using their names to call attention to unsavory behavior unless they are in a dangerous situation.  Nathan taught me that and for that I am thankful.  He had enough courage to tell his teacher the wrong of her ways, and lead me to deeper reflection.  When we ask our students questions, we may not like the answer, but there is always a great reason for that answer.  A reason that should not be taken lightly, but rather explored, reflected upon and then acted upon.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Dear Arnold Once More

Dear Arnold,
I haven't heard anything for so long, and yet, there you are again, coming into my life but this time only through conversation.  It seems that my angry 4th grader only grew into an even angrier 6th grader.  Someone whom the system failed and who is now set to be expelled from not just another school, but an entire district.  The news is given to me nonchalantly like it is no big deal but just another update on an old student but they don't know.  They don't know how I worry about you still, how I carry your smile with me, how I reflect on what I could have done better.  My heart sinks, and the heaviness of this job gets to me.

My principal asks what happened to you back then?  We failed, that's what happened.  We tried to get you help but the red tape was too much, it was too ever present, looming over us at every step of the way.  Those people just wouldn't listen when we told them that we felt that this was it; this was your moment to choose your path, and we were so worried with the direction you were headed. So we just focused on getting you through that day, rather than giving you the chance of getting better, of getting help.  And now you pay the price for our failure.  You are the one who even an alternative school has failed because all of that anger inside of you just keeps on coming.  

So I try to reach out, to help from afar, but there doesn't seem to be anything I can do.  Except I can't just give up like others.  I can't just let it go.  You may not see what I see in you, or even understand why this crazy white teacher keeps fighting for you, but you matter.  Demons like those you battle are not meant for children.   Kids your age should not be worried about the burdens you carry, real or perceived.  You should be playing soccer, or hanging with your friends, by now even checking out girls.  And instead the anger has fused into your spine as you carry yourself through those hallways, glancing at everyone as you prepare to fight. The world is not against you, even if it seems that way.

So Arnold, I know I can't save you, but I say it again; I am here if you need me.  I am here to listen, to vent with, even if I will never understand why you are so angry.  Even if I will never live your life.  You are not alone, you are not a failure, you are kind, you have the greatest heart of any child I know, you matter.  Don't let the world take that away from you.

Mrs. Ripp

From i can read


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