Thursday, June 30, 2011

Technology Usage Parent Letter and Consent Form

Classroom (Photo credit: James F Clay)

Internet safety and education is always at the forefront of my mind when I work with technology in the classroom.  It is therefore important for me to have my parents have an understanding and some control over their child's work and image as it relates to usage and access.

Here is the link to purchase the whole letter and below is what part of the document looks like.

A Letter on Technology in Mrs. Ripp’s Room

Technology serves a major function in this classroom to collaborate and connect with students across the globe.  Safety and proper usage of the chosen technology is therefore vital for this classroom to be successful in its implementation.  This letter is intended to inform and expand on the most common types of technology that will be integrated throughout the year, as well as serve as a consent form.  Please note that the District Acceptable Use Policy for Technology is upheld and discussed throughout the year as well.

°  Flip Video Cameras:  Students use video cameras throughout the year to capture their learning and for presentations.  I also use the cameras to capture specific student work to be published on our classroom website (www.mrsripp.blogspot.com).
°  Digital Cameras:  Students and I take pictures of our projects and students at work.  These images are often used for publication on our website and once in a while are included in presentations I conduct to teach other educators.  


Dear Parent or Guardian,
Throughout the school year, I may include photographs, videos, or work of individual students or student group activities on our classroom website (www.mrsripp.blogspot.com), on my professional website (www.mrspripp.blogspot.com), and occasionally in presentations for other educators.  Any student and/or their school work will be identified by first name only.  No last names will be mentioned.

Please mark any of the choices below and return to school:

_____    Yes, I give permission to photograph, videotape, or audio record my child.  I also give permission to display my child’s school work including class pictures.

____    Please do not publish my child’s photograph on the classroom website or any other Internet page.


Community Building 101 With Mrs. Ripp

Ahhh community building exercises.  Those small sheets of paper that we all so vigorously collect whilst in college knowing that some day they will be our go-to's.  Some day they will lead us to a breakthrough in our classrooom.  Some day they will be corner stones of our community.  And yet, then they don't.  In fact, as I cleaned out my files at the end of the year, I found a lot of them shoved into a forgotten corner of my cabinet, crumpled, dusty, and very unused.  I guess I haven't needed them after all.

So welcome to community building 101 with your teacher, Mrs. Ripp.  A newish teacher that doesn't quite know what she is doing at all times but will happily share all of the ups and downs.  So first, how not to build community, from someone who has made all of these mistakes:
  • Pre-post your rules.  Nothing says "This is my classroom" like a beautifully laminated poster of all of your rules that have been hanging there for years.  Students certainly know who is the boss then and also that they are indeed just visitors in your room.  Way to set the tone from the first day.
  • Spend days on a constitution.  I like the Constitution, in fact, as a social studies lesson I think this would be marvelous.  But as a community builder, not so much.  Think of it through a kid's eyes:  days spent discussing the rules for the rest of they year and then pledging to uphold all 20 of them, umm not so much.  Oh and who is going to remember all of them, yikes!
  • Set clear boundaries.  The first year I labeled my classroom with teacher versus student stickers.  Oh yes, I was a label master, making sure the students knew exactly which cabinets, which supplies, and which areas they were allowed in.  I spent the rest of the year reminding them where not to go and I kept hammering in how something was "mine" - sounds like a 2 year old's behavior, not a teacher's.
  • Ice breakers.  I know people will disagree here, but I hate ice breakers, they are super awkward and make me feel very uncomfortable for a while until I can retreat back to my own comfort zone.  I have never made a connection through an icebreaker, sorry.  Instead, invest in something meaningful as a classroom like a connection map, or a kid made video tour of the classroom, or something that the kids can work together on.  If they can focus on the task rather than the connecting, community building will start to happen.
  • Tell the kids you will now be building a community.  I am all for setting goals and telling the kids about it, but this one better be left unsaid.  It's like telling someone you are trying to become their friend; that hyperfocus tends to make things weird.  Instead tell the kids what they will be doing, simple as that.
  • Have a million things planned.  Sometimes the best beginnings of a community comes from spending time together, but when you plan too much or have too much to do, that goes out the window.  So leave a little room for spontaneity, a little room for just hanging out (perhaps on the playground) and a little room for whatever the kids would like to do. 
    So what should you do?
    • Be yourself.  The kids will see right through any phoniness, so if you are a massive dork like I am, let it all shine through.  
    • Share your life.  I often have a video from Thea, my 2 year old daughter, or a funny story about her to start the day out with.  The kids really get to know me and my family and in turn open up about their lives as well.
    • Laugh a lot.  I love to laugh and I think kids are hilarious, if we just give them the time to speak.  
    • Start decorating the classroom.  I stress over and over that this is "Our classroom," so the kids get to make decorating choices as well as furniture setup decisions.  Every class learns differently and they can often set up a better environment than I can.
    • Start learning.  I love all of the learning that happens at school so we start right away with some curriculum, often the kids cannot wait to see what this new grade level will be about so why wait.  Of course, we balance it out with all the other great non-curricular activities.
    • Decide on expectations together.  I don't have classroom rules, I have expectations that are set with the students.  We take some time, and we always adjust them throughout the year, but in the end they need to be straight and to the point so the kids (and I) can remember them.  And no, they are not posted anywhere.
    • Give it time.   Great community does not happen on the first day of school but you do plant the seed that day.  So tend to it and nurture it, give it them time it deserves throughout the school year and highlight it from time to time.  I discuss with the students how great of a classroom we have which keeps it a priority and reminds of what we strive to be: a place where everyone feels like they belong and are safe.

    Wednesday, June 29, 2011

    I am Sorry Mr. Governor

    I am sorry Mr. Govenor but those things you say I do every day are simply not true.  That bashing and gnashing I do of my teeth simply doesn't happen.  Those kids I fail, those initiatives I ignore, yeah that doesn't happen either.  I am sorry Mr. Govenor but when you say you are fixing education I only have to laugh.  Which classrooms have you been in where you could see a benefit from removing the voice of the teachers and the students?  What classrom have you been too that would do better with just a few more students added?  Which room have you sat in where the teacher has spread their "thuggery," their political rhetoric, or simply has not worked hard?  You haven't been in mine, that I know for sure. 

    So I am sorry Mr. Governor, I hate to disappoint, I know you would like me to be a union thug, I know you would really like me to be a "bad" teacher so that I may be fixed.  I know you would like to blame the troubles of Wisconsin on me and my actions, but I will not stand for it.  I will not sink to your expected level, I will not politicize my classroom, I will not preach to my students about the wrongs of the government, but instead teach them about democracy; the history of Wisconsin, and how we fought to set up a state that heard all of its people. All of its people.  Not just the rich or those in power at the moment.  All of its people, the minorities, the laypeople, and yes, even the unionists.  So please stop with your mudslinging and your "saving."  Please stop with your demoralizing demeanor and your fancy ideas of how to save education in our proud state.  Please stop with your talk of shared sacrifice since all of the people of Wisconsin have done nothing but sacrifice for the last many years.  So Mr. Governor, once more I apologize for not making your job any easier.  For not painting a larger bulls-eye on my back, for not stooping to a level where I deserve to be called an enemy, a thug, and a horrible person.  Your mission would have been much easier if I did.


    Monday, June 27, 2011

    Kids Shouldn't Feel Like Tourists: How Every Classroom Should Be a Tribe

    Taken today - oh what a beautiful flag

    "I feel like I belong."  My little brother turns to me as we walk through the Copenhagen aiport minutes after landing.  We are indeed home, even if just for a short while, but I immidiately got what he meant.  I belong to the same tribe he does; the Danes, and with that comes certain hidden knowledge, requirements and social norms that normal tourists simply will not be a part of.  This is all unravled to us as we are raised; how to speak to elders, how to dress, how to survive in a culture which is very liberal but has heightened politeness and manners standards.  The manual for being a Dane has not been written, and indeed, it changes as the population changes, and yet there is a "Daneness" that I recognize.  We are indeed tribe members and not just by looks - in fact not all Danes are blonde like I am - but by culture and behavior.  We are members because we know how to be and the society lets us be, with only a few perplexed comments on our Americanness (13 years abroad will do that for you).

    This is much like our classrooms.  We set them up to be inclusive and welcoming to our students but do we set them up as a tribe?  (And I am not referring to the Tribes program here).  A tribe would mean that every person involved in the classroom felt like they belong and understood the hidden language of the classroom.  A tribe means safety for all of the people wherever they venture in the room and also that they will be protected by other students outside of our territory.  A tribe is bigger than just being a class.  All of this is certainly something I strive for every year so I mulled about this all day and reached the following conclusions.  To be a tribe we must
    • Recognize that we are an entity, that yes we are part of something bigger in the school, but also see that we are our own unit contained within the walls of our classroom.
    • Realize that we are unique.  There are other similar classrooms but this actual composition cannot be replicated anywhere else and this is something to celebrate.
    • Determine our culture.  What do we value, what do we see as proper behavior and how do we act amongst each other?  These are all vital for a tribe to feel togetherness and should not be set by the teacher.  For real understanding, appreciation, and cooperation it has to be set up together.  A tribe may have a leader but it is still a regular person who holds that position.
    • Determine our hidden language.  Discuss the assumptions we bring into the classroom,  set expectations and explore pitfalls.  Unspoken assumptions in particular can be devastating for a classroom and need to be discussed openly so that all involved people have a real chance of ownership and understanding.
    • Allow change.  A tribe should not stay the same all year, it should move and fluctuate as the classroom moves much like a country's culture.  What should remain though is the sense of belonging of understanding the classroom culture and being able to navigate it all successfully without feeling like a tourist.
    Being a tribe is so much more than being just a classroom, even a really good one.  It allows students to lose inhibitions (and the teacher too) and to revel in a meaningful learning environment.  No longer just visiting for the year in the teacher's classroom but actually building the foundation of it and then actively maintaining it throughout the year so that ever person who walks into the room can exclaim, "I belong."

    This goes beyond just building community and rightfully so and will therefore take top priority in the coming year for me.  What about you?

    Saturday, June 25, 2011

    So You Want to Integrate Technology - Now What?

    Technology Is Not TechnologyTechnology Is Not Technology (Photo credit: lgb06)

    I have been given a new label this year, I am now the "techy teacher."  This label brings many odd and interesting conversations with it, most often involving how to integrate technology into a classroom.  So for all of those just getting started, who perhaps are ready to move beyond use computers as research engines and typewriters, here is a little advice from someone who has been there:
    1. Decide on time.  Ask yourself, and be honest, how much time do you really want to spend on technology in your day?  If the answer is as little as possible then perhaps this is not the year.  If the answer is some, then do  read on.
    2. Figure out the "Why."  What are you aiming to do with the technology?  What are the goals for integration?  Is it to connet with others then Skype or blogging might be a great thing to learn about.  Is it to give students different project options then perhaps Animoto or Glogster are your venues.  Is it to give yourself more professional development then Twitter is a must.
    3. Do your research.  Reach out to others (through Twitter perhaps) and ask them what they use.  Google your needs, look at reviews, and then decide whether it is a good fit for you or not.   There are so many websites and blogs out there that do all the work for you, Richard Byrne's Free Technology for Teachers is a great place to begin!
    4. Chose a few.  While there are so many things out there technologically speaking it is best to choose a few to focus on.  I thought I was going to integrate many things the last year and it honestly just got too time consuming.  So align the technology with your goal (see number 2) and get ready to mess with it, and...
    5. Play.  Technology needs to be pretty self-explanatory and I better be able to figure it out within a short amount of time.  If it is something I am showing/using with my students then I better have it figured out within 5 minutes or so.  If it is for my own personal use, I give it 30 minutes but after that, no thanks.  Play with it, walk through it as your students will and learn a little about it.  Often this gets me more excited to use it.
    6. Again - how will you use it?  Now that you have decided on what to use, ask again whether this will work for your educational goal.  I love the idea of VoiceThread but found it too cumbersome for the presentation format so I went a different route.  Just because it is technology does not mean it is helpful.
    7. Stick with it.  The first couple of times I introduced new technology to my students I was a little bit apprehensive, after all, these were 4th graders I was asking to do the work.  And yet, they got it.  The beauty of technology integration also is that if one students gets it then they can also help you teach it to others. 
    8. Embrace failure.  Go into this adventure knowing that things will break, signals will fail, and computers will crash.  Have a back up plan in mind that still accomplishes the same goal.  We have had missed Skype opportunities, blocked websites and overall disasters on our hands, but always managed to laugh about it and move on.  Don't waste your time lamenting lost technology.
    9. Be courageous.  So what if you are the only one at your school trying this out; be the one who tries new things.  No one at my school was blogging before I started and now all of the 5th grade tried it as well.  You never know who will be inspired by you trying something out.
    10. Make it worthwhile.  I do not believe in tech for tech's sake.  I only use it to further our learning goals and to broaden my students' horizon, so use it in the right sense.  Students will respond and be engaged if they understand and see the genuine purpose, they will quickly lose interest if it does not further your purpose.  Remember technology is not always the answer to every lesson,  sometimes whipping out paper and pen can produce the same (and sometimes better) results.  So make sure you use it when it fits, not because you feel you have to.


    Friday, June 24, 2011

    My Other Baby - The Global Read Aloud Project

    Last year I had an idea, a simple one really; connect classrooms across the globe by sharing a read aloud.  I thought aloud on Twitter, got positive feedback, and "poof" The Global Read Aloud project was born.  Come September when more than 50 classrooms around the world had signed up, I had no clue what to expect, but I was ready with my copy of "The Little Prince" which had been chosen.  And I was not disappointed, for 4 weeks I got to share an incredible book not just with my students but students in other places.  We blogged about it, talked about it, Skyped about it and just overall connected with others.  The coolest thing was definitely when my kids told me how they couldn't believe other kids were reading the same book as them - mission accomplished.

    This year it is back and better than before.  On September 14th I am excited to kick off the 2nd annual Global Read Aloud with more than 100 participating classrooms signed up so far.  This year promises to bring some of the same and something different.  A huge difference is that there will be two books this year; one geared for older students (Tuck Everlasting) and one for younger kids (book yet to be determined).  I have also opened it up to more collaborators and co-authors as well as set up a Google group for us to connect.  It will be more streamlined and easier to participate for everyone and I will have an easier time keeping my cool.  But what stays is the same is the purpose; the connection.  I don't care how much participants get involved, I just want them to have a venue for reaching out to others to share this experience with.  So please consider joining us as we venture into another try, check it out, spread the word, let me know if you have any questions.  We would love for you to join us as we connect the world through one book.

    It's Only Been a Year - Happy Blogday to Me

    A year ago, yesterday, I started this blog with a very simple goal in mind; write. On the urgings of my incredible husband who thought I had a story to tell, I ventured into blogging with no plan other than to keep it honest and reflective. Now as my first milestone in the blogging world passed, I am grateful for his insistence. To say that writing this blog has been life changing is not giving it enough credit. Rather than bore you with all of the details of how my life has been changed, I will only highlight a few things. So blogging stopped me from:

    Wasting away with my ideas. Who knew there were others out there on a journey similar to mine? For those people who have cheered me on, thank you. And for those people who have questioned, dissed, and torn me apart - thank you as well. Through constant questioning I have been able to refine, reflect, and realize that I am a human being that makes mistakes and sometimes has bad ideas. What a gift that is.

    Being dishonest. I couldn't just write about how I was going to change my teaching and my life, I actually had to do it. Putting my thoughts out in public meant accountability, I want to make sure I actually do all of the things I so proudly exclaim. So if you ever stop by my classroom, yes,it does actually run the way I write about.

    Becoming stagnant. If I didn't change, I wouldn't have anything to write about, I can just imagine a blog detailing how I am still doing the same thing every day. This has been a journey of teaching and I can see the growth when I reflect.

    Being anonymous. It is much easier to hide behind the anonymous label when I reach out but having this blog has offed me a "new" identity and one that I am very proud of. Being an introvert in an extroverts body has certainly led to a lot of awkwardness but I get now how my kids feel when I put them on the spot as well. If we can't do it comfortably, why should our students?

    Quitting teaching. Last year I was ready to quit. I didn't have my purpose, I didn't have the drive, and I certainly didn't feel the passion. Now? I want to change the world, I want to reach all of my students, I want to grown with them and learn from them.

    So thank you people, thank you Brandon, thank you to the haters and the believers. Who knows how long my blogging journey will last, but for now I am grateful for the year I have conquered. There have been tears, laugher, many questions and lots of brutal honesty, the next year can only get better (and more honest).

    Wednesday, June 22, 2011

    So You Want a Teaching Job - 10 Tips for a Better Interview

    Every year, even as a rookie teacher, I have had the extreme privilege of sitting in on interviews for both teaching and specialist positions.  Every time I have been amazed at the quality of candidates that are available to us but also stumped once in a while when a candidate just isn't all that prepared.  So why not offer up some tips for anyone trying to land that sometime elusive teaching job?

    1. Be prepared.  Yes, I know this sounds like an "of course" but there have been times where I have wondered whether the person even knew where they were interviewing or what they were interviewing for.  So prepare for this like you would your first day of teaching.
    2. Be relevant.  Many schools like artifacts so make sure that the things you bring to show are current and fit the job.  If the things you bring have nothing to do with the position you are interviewing for, then don't bring it.  If it fits with the interview bring it up during it, don't just let it lie in front of you.
    3. Listen to the question.  Teachers tend to like to talk and sometimes we are not the best listeners, this is the time to tune in.  Really listen to the question being asked and then answer it.  This is not the time to stray off topic or think you know what the question is before it has been completed.  You can always ask for them to repeat it.
    4. Stay current.  I was expecting my first child my first year of teaching but that did not stop me from taking classes.  There simply is no excuse these days to not participate in professional development, so take at least one class to show us that you are continuing your learning.
    5. Research the school.  Most schools have websites that provide a description for you to read and then use.  We want to know why you want to work for this specific school, not why you want to be a teacher.  Make us feel wanted.
    6. Mention kids.  Another "duh" but there have been interviews where the person never mentioned kids or their desire to work with them, that sends up a major red flag.
    7. Figure out what "team" means.  I have never heard of an job that didn't require someone to work as part of a team, so come up with a great description of what being a team player means to you and make sure it doesn't just talk about how much you will bring to the team, what will the team bring to you?
    8. Keep your eyes open.  I know nerves can get in the way  but if you speak with your eyes semi-closed now is the time to open them up and look at people.  This goes for smiling and any other body language that says you are eager, passionate, and with it.  
    9. Share stories but keep them brief.  I like hearing about past experiences but only if that story is 100% relevant and brief.  So stay on point and share, but not to every question.
    10. Practice your answers and questions.  If you google "teacher interview questions" you will find enough questions to give you a baseline for what to expect.  Think your answers through and figure out questions  you want to ask as well.  It shows you care, that you are motivated, and that this job matters to you.
    Of course, there are experts out there that know way more about this than me but this is what i would tell my friends who are interviewing.  So good luck to all of those seeking jobs.

    After some thought it is now time to add the one I forgot:

         11.  Google yourself!  If you are a new teacher with an online identity; wahoo!  However, google    
                yourself before the interview to see what a prospective employer might see and then set up some
                privacy settings if you don't like what they find.  Results of your awesome blog or schooling is
                great, pictures of you drinking on Facebook is not.

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    Sunday, June 19, 2011

    He Was Right There - Words to My Father

    My father came into my life on my 7th birthday.  One moment there was no one there and the next I found my mother sitting on a strange man's lap as if he had always been there.  I didn't know he was my father then and in fact it took me many years of confusion, displaced anger, and soul searching before I realized that the father I had always been searching for was right in front of me.

    My father did not have me, he chose me instead.  He chose to be a part of my mother's life and in that he also chose to be a father to her three children.  And we did not make it easy for him.  We did not want a father, already had enough in the one we dealt with on forced vacations and long weekend.  Growing up as the product of split parents, I had enough self-pity to stay in misery for years.  And yet my father stood by me.  He showed me how to play the guitar, he showed me how to use the computer, he stood by me when my other father dealt my already fragile ego another blow.  And he did not ask for anything in return.  He just waited and waited until one day I realized he had been there all along.

    So when my soulmate asked me to marry him, I knew I had to make a choice.  Did the man who was my biological father give me away or the man who had stood by me all of these years, wiping away my tears, lifting me up when I needed it, get to do it?  When I walked down the stairs with my father by my side, my biological father watching from the chairs, I knew that this was what the world had wanted.  Someone out there knew that this little girl with so much anger and so many tears needed someone to show her what it meant to be a real father.  What it meant to give your all and not ask for anything in return.  He showed me that it is okay to show your emotions, and it is ok to be  angry as long as you have a way to work it out.  He showed me what it means to love and live and passionately believe in things.  He showed me what real fathers do and told me that I had the right one when I met Brandon.  And he was right, when I look at how Brandon is with Thea, I see my father and how he was with me; there, present, and in the moment.  We are truly our father's daughters, thanks dad.


    Thursday, June 16, 2011

    You Have the Summer Off, Really?

    I know people mean well.  I know they think I am exhausted from dealing with students, demanding tests, and just the overall misery of being a teacher in America.  But they are wrong.  I am not exhausted, I have never just "dealt with" students or misery (dreadful tests - yes).  So when someone tells me that they survived the school year, I cringe, and when someone asks me how excited I am to have the summer "off" I stop and pause.  I am excited to spend more time with my family and do summer things, but excited about having off, no not really.

    I don't have the summer off.  I never have since deciding to be a teacher.  When I was going to college I would work extra hours and take summer classes.  Since getting my teaching job, I have taught summer school, taken classes and just kept my brain engaged.  And while many choices are voluntary, I do it with one big picture in mind; a better educational experience for my students.  This post is not to whine, I make the choices about my time, but it is meant to make people pause before they state that teachers have 3 months off and have it so easy.  So here is what I have been up to:

    • I blog almost daily to keep myself reflective and engaged.
    • I am getting ready to present twice at the Reform Symposium 3.  Once on student blogging and once with my great friend Matt on the connection and collaboration between our very different classrooms.
    • I have finished editing an upcoming article on the Global Read Aloud for ISTE's magazine "Learning & Leading with Technology" to be published in November.
    • I have written a guest post for VolunteerSpot on what we wish we could tell parents but don't.
    • I have finished doing a double blind review of a great book to be published by SolutionTree.
    • I have engaged in deep conversation about best practices and student blogging on an almost daily basis with individual educators looking to make a change.
    • I am preparing a weeklong professional development class I am teaching in my district in August on how to integrate technology into your classroom.
    • I have revamped my school's old website and converted it to a blog.
    • I have changed my own classroom website from Tumblr to Blogger due to security issues.
    • I have worked on revamping the Global Read Aloud website to allow for author collaboration (email me to let me know if you want to be a collaborator).
    • I have cleaned my classroom and sorted all of my 4th grade curriculum to pass on to the new 4th grade teacher.
    And that is all in the first week of vacation.  So while bettering myself is a choice and I may do more than other people I fit it into my daughter's schedule and we make it work.  Next week when I leave for Denmark I have 3 books I am bringing with me all education related since I want to revamp my reading program.  So the next time someone feels the urge to tell teachers how lucky they are to have 3 months off, think about, maybe ask them instead what they plan on doing this summer.  The answer may surprise you.


    Wednesday, June 15, 2011

    So I Gave Up Punishment and the Kids Still Behaved

    This year I gave up my inane punishment plans.  Out went the sticks, the cups, the posters, the pointed fingers and definitely the lost recesses.  No more check-marks, or charts to explain what that check-mark meant, no more raised voice telling a child they better behave or else.  Some thought I was crazy, I thought I was crazy, and yet, here I am ready to do it again next year.  So what happened?

    Well, a lot of conversations.  If just one child was off that day, disruptive, disrespectful and so on, it was usually handled through a quiet conversation off to the side or in their ear.  Sometimes we went in the hallway.  I tried to limit the times I called out their names and I spoke to them as human beings.  No more teacher from the top, I am going to get you if you don't listen, but rather, "Do you see what your behavior is doing for your learning?"  Believe it or not, framed in a way where they understood what the loss was = the learning, there was better behavior or at least an attempt to behave.  And that was a central part of my plan; make the learning something they don't want to miss.  Most kids do not want to miss recess because they have a lot of fun and hang out with their friends, which is why it is such a favored punishment.  Hit them where it hurst kind of thing.  So I decided to make my classroom fun, exciting, and collaborative.  That meant that students actually wanted to participate and not miss out.

    Sometimes my whole class was off; jumpy, jiggly, or falling asleep.  In the past I would have yelled, droned on, and probably lectured about the importance of school.  No surprise there that usually didn't work at all.  So then I would just get mad, tighten the reins and exert my control.  After all, I was the adult here and the one that should decide everything.  Yeah, didn't work so well.  This year I instead changed my teaching and learning.  While we may have had certain activities planned for that day they would be modified to require movement and discussion or totally changed if I could.  The learning goals usually stayed the same, the method didn't.  Often this took care of a lot of behavior that would have led to a check-mark before.  And I think that is central to this whole thing; bad behavior often comes from disengagement and boredom.  So when we change our classrooms to give students more outlet for their energy, bad behavior reduces.  My worst days were the days that I hadn't considered my students needs enough, the days were there was too much sitting down and not enough choice.

    In the beginning it was hard.  I so instinctually wanted to say "Move your stick!" that I actually had to grind my teeth.  With time it got easier.  The students knew when they were misbehaving because we discussed it.  If the whole class or a majority of students were off we had a class meeting.  Sounds like a lot of time spent on talking?  Yes, but I would have been spending the same time yelling at the kids and doling out punishment.  The kids got used to it and many of them relished the fact that they were given a voice in their behavior and how to fix it, rather than a dictation from me.  Kids started keeping each other in line as well, asking others to be quiet when need be or to work more focused.  They knew what the expectations were for the different learning settings because we had set them together.  This was our classroom, not mine.

    So did it work?  Absolutely, I would never go back.  I didn't take away recess but had it reserved to work with the kids that needed it, I made fewer phone calls home, and I sent a kid to the office twice the whole year for recess related stuff.  I am sure there are tougher classes out there than mine, but this was your every day average American elementary class.  We had the talkers, the interrupters, the disrespectful, the fighters, and the sleepers.  And it worked for them as well.  The kids felt part of something, something big, and they let me know on the last day of school just how much it meant to them.  They relished the voice they had, even when it came to their own consequences.  They relished that rewards were no longer personal but rather classroom-wide whenever I felt like it.  Kids were not singled out for horrible behavior and so I didn't have "that kid" that everyone knew would get in trouble.  Instead we were all there as learners being rewarded through our community rather than punished.  Yesterday while preparing form y switch from 4th to 5th, I put my old punishment cups to move your stick in into the lounge.  I hope no one picks them up.

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    Monday, June 13, 2011

    5 + 1 Things I Learned This Year

    I was recently asked what would be my top 5 things I have learned this past year in my journey to radically change my classroom.  So after some deep pondering and gut checks, here are the lessons I have learned, or the top 5 + 1.

    1. Give them choice (and a voice).  The number one thing my students said they loved was the fact that they had a choice and a voice.  As teachers we are taught that we are the only experts but this is so far from the truth.  My students have a lot of background knowledge and a lot of enthusiasm so letting them choose the type of project they wanted to create or how they wanted to learn something meant there was buy in.   No longer was learning mandated, there was actual buy-in from everyone.
    2. Trust your students.  I was not sure that my students could handle all of the responsibility I was giving them but throughout the year I was proven wrong again and again.  In fact, my students could probably have handled even more.  Trust also means that if they tell you something not so nice, you should celebrate it, not get upset.  The fact that my students trusted me enough to tell me something was boring is something that I relish and then learned from.  
    3. Trust yourself.  I knew I had to make big changes in my room and yet I questioned myself throughout the year.  was not giving them a letter grade really benefitting them?  Was not having punishment in my classroom better for all of us?  Were we accomplishing as much as we should have?  My gut told me I was doing the right thing and yet doubt snuck in sometimes, in the end, do what you believe in and then stand behind it.  There is a reason your common sense is telling you something is amiss and needs to be fixed, so fix it to suit you.
    4. Ask yourself the tough questions.  I asked myself whether I would be a student in my own classroom.  Before this year, the answer would have been a resounding no.  Now that answer has changed.  In fact, I love being in my classroom as much as my students do.  School should be about learning, yes, but that doesn't mean it can't be engaging and enticing at the same time.
    5. Give yourself a break.  There were days were I sucked as a teacher.   Days were I pined for inane punishment just to make them behave or were I raised my voice.  There were days were I didn't feel like giving feedback or having lengthy conversations about projects.  Some days I just wanted to lecture and be done with it.  Thankfully my students snapped me out of that really quickly.  You are not perfect, you never will be, and that is ok.  Trust the direction you are taking and make adjustments as you see fit.  
    6. Be Quiet!  Teaching should not be about teachers pouring information into the heads of students, but rather teachers as a guide letting students explore, create, and make connections.  When we let the students own the classroom and the discussion they also take ownership of the learning, and that is a beautiful thing indeed.  So get off the stage but set it up for them to learn and then stop talking.  Much like we ask our parents to not help with homework, we should also ask ourselves to not take away the pleasure of learning.  

    So there they are; my biggest lessons this year.  I am already excitedly planning for my transition to 5th grade next year and reevaluating what worked, what sucked, and what will I definitely do differently.  A new year brings new challenges and for that I am thankful.
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    Saturday, June 11, 2011

    Allow Yourself to Dream

    Cross posted from the fantastic Cooperative Catalyst

    I do my best teaching while I dream.  Far away from my own cowardice that tells me to stick within the lines, follow the lesson plan, and to not deviate off the trodden path.  I do my best teaching right before sleep comes and envelopes me, right before the stress of the day falls away, leaving only time to think of what can be done.  That is when I think of how I will reach all of my students.  This is where the labels are cast aside and only ability and tenacity shine the brightest.  This is when I fully believe that they can all achieve everything.
    In college, I was taught not to dream.  Dreams were for people without teaching degrees, people that might make a warm and fuzzy teacher, a softie,  but certainly not someone who made their students achieve.  Instead I was told to plan, plan, and plan some more.  Read the standards, correlate them, and throw in some spice for those students with minor special needs that may pop up in your classroom.  English language learners?  No problemo; just throw in some pre-teaching of the vocabulary and off they will go. I was ready to teach them all that school was fun and useful.  And then reality struck and I looked at the list of my not so minor disabled students, my english language learners that did not just need vocabulary, and even that one child that was just so angry at the world.  And so I planned some more.
    After a year or two with glazed eyes and long, drawn out speeches about how important it all was, I dreamed a little.  I dreamt of a classroom that students wanted to come to.  A room where learning was loud, excited and maybe not always practical.  And so when I was dozing every night, I would think that maybe I could try one little thing, maybe that would not hurt my plans so much if instead of planning every minute of the lesson, I asked the students what they wanted to do instead.  Maybe they could dream along with me?
    So I have become a dreamer, one who believes that children have a valid voice in their own education.  One that believes that parents should be involved in the school, one that believes we must drop the labels and see our children for what they are; dreamers just like us.  They do not dream of a school that talks at them, but one where there is engaging conversation.  They do not dream of being drones chained to desks being stuffed with information, but rather really learning through experimentation, thinking, and yes even dreaming.  So let them dream, or even more importantly, let yourself dream.  For it is in these dream that we realize just how powerful our classroom can be.  It is in these dreams that we shape the future and the future shapes us.  We are a world of dreamers, if only we choose to be.

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    Friday, June 10, 2011

    So You Want to Quit Letter Grades - A Practical Guide From Someone Who's Done It and Survived

    Last year I made the decision to stop giving out letter grades as much as possible. This was not an easy decision or one that I made lightly. Only after research, deep reflection, and many conversations with peers did I decide that this was the best step for me within my educational philosophy. This post is not a debate of why I quit letter grades, but a how, so here goes.

    1. Do your research.  I knew that to do this right I had to have my philosophy and facts straight so I read Alfie Kohn's work, as well as the numerous blogs, articles, and reflections on it available through a  Google search.  This strengthened my stance and gave me practical know-how.
    2. Think it through.  This is a bucking-the-system type of decision so you need to be clear on why you are doing this.  Providing students with more meaningful feedback: yes.  Less work and more free time: no.  
    3. Now think it through practically.  What is this going to look like in your room?  How will you take notes?  How will you assess their learning?  And then how will you compile that all into feedback, progress reports, and perhaps even a dictated grade on a district report card?  This was my biggest hurdle this year and something that I need to refine next year.
    4. Create your goals. All lessons have to have goals, otherwise you will have nothing to assess.  Sometimes we are not totally sure of that what those goals are since a curriculum has been prescribed to us.  Dig through it and find them or create your own within your standards and then make a list or some sort of report.  I was able to quickly assess through verbal Q&A whether a student was secure in something or not and then check off that goal, moving that student on to something else.
    5. Involve the higher ups.  I didn't have to alert my principal to what I was planning on doing but it made my life a lot easier when I did.  Some districts will not support this without a proper discussion and it is important to have allies if someone questions your program or philosophy.
    6. Explain it to your families, and particularly your students.  The first few weeks we discussed what proper feedback was, what we could use it for, and how the feedback was just another step in our journey.  This made my students start to focus on the feedback rather than pine for a grade to be done with it.  Deadlines became more flexible and a product was seldom "done" but always a work in progress.
    7. Involve your students.  I had to still give letter grades on our report cards so I discussed with students what their grade should be.  More time consuming, absolutely, but it was wonderful to see their knowledge of the subject and understanding of what they should know.  Most of the time, their grades and mine lined up perfectly and in rare occasions were they much harder on themselves than I was.  Either way we figured it out together, through conversation and reflection, and they started to own their learning more.
    8. Plan for it.  Meaningful assessment does not just happen, it is planned and somehow noted.  If you think you are just going to remember, you are not.  So every day I had my trusty clipboard that I took notes on, checked off progress and goals accomplished on, and added anything else useful to.  This became my "grade book" and the days I didn't use it, all of that information was lost.  
    9. Take Your Time.  Letter grades will always be easier to do because they most often are compiled from a piece of paper or a one-time presentation.  Deep feedback is not.  This happens through conversations, assignments, and lots and lots of formative assessment.  Give yourself time to take it all in, take your most important goals and give them enough time to be accomplished by your students, and then give yourself enough time to have the conversations.  The conversations are the most important tool here.
    10. Allow Yourself to Change.  This means both allowing yourself to try out not giving letter grades and then figuring out if it works for you.  This also means allowing yourself to know that this is a work in progress.  There were absolutely missed opportunities in my room this year concerning feedback, but I know what to work on now.  I also know what my goals are, how to engage students in meaningful conversation regarding their work, and also how to give better feedback.  Just like our students, we too, are learning.
    11. Most Importantly: Reach Out.  Through my PLN I was able to engage in meaningful conversations and iron out hurdles with the help of Joe Bower, Jeremy MacDonald, and Chris Wejr.  I even reached out to Alfie Kohn.  There are people who have done this before you, there are people who have gone through it before you, use them, ask them questions, and know that you are not alone.  I am always available to discuss this with anyone so reach out to me as well.

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    Tuesday, June 7, 2011

    No Longer Mine

    I can't take their work off the walls.  With two days left my classroom still looks as if we have all the time in the world, but we don't.  On Thursday our journey ends and a new one begins for these incredible 23 students that I have been lucky enough to call my kids.  When I am asked what I am passionate about, many people assume technology, or writing, or math.  Sure, I love all of those things, they are interesting, they even sometimes excite me.  But passions?  I am passionate about my students.

    These children are given to me on loan and it is my job to make sure they still love school when I am done with them.  It is my job to ensure that they still love learning when this year is over and that they, in fact, have grown not just academically but personally as well.  I am passionate about them because they are the reason why teaching is the best job in the world and also the most heartbreaking.

    We invest our hearts every year.  Our dreams, our hopes, our ideas.  And we hope to plant a tiny seed within our students knowing that they matter, that we care, that their sheer presence makes a difference for us and everyone else.  That passion consumes me.  When the end of the year arrives, I know I have to let go.  I know they are no longer ming but someone else's.  It is someone else's turn to become passionate about these kids and I get new ones to focus on.  Yet my heart grows wider after the sadness leaves and I know that these students will in some way always be mine, or at least their 4th grade version will be.

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    Monday, June 6, 2011

    They Are Ready to Leave

    I started this year with a vision and ended it with a new belief. I started this year by throwing it almost all out, scrappng what I thought were "have to's" in the classroom, discarding rhetoric survived from college, raising my own expectation for eagerness, excitement, genuine learning rather than memorization. I started this year with many ideas. Not my students. They started this year being excited about being 4th graders, bummed about losing their third recess, but pumped that the chairs and desks were bigger. Some were even interested in what we would learn in 4th grade, but none of them knew what to expect. Neither did I to tell you the truth.

    So these kids that have been my partners in learning, these kids that have believed in our journey together are now ready to leave me. They are ready for new challenges, new jokes, new routines and expectations. They are ready to decompress, breathe a little bit, and just be kids in the summer heat. I pretend to be ready to let them go, I know it is their time, but it is still hard to lose the label of "my kids." The journey we have been on has been so incredible, so beyond expectations, that I wonder if this is it? Is this the year I will always try to emulate? Or did I really stumble upon something within myself? Did I create a new teacher where then old me once stood? Will my vision survive the next year?

    I started this year with a vision and I was lucky enough to have kids that believed in it too. Now they get to leave with our vision of what learning should feel like, and I am left behind, alone, but so, so proud. These kids - they will change the world some day.

    Sunday, June 5, 2011

    How to Use Kidblog - A Video

    If you would like to use KidBlog with your students, my students decided to make a How To video.  The students cover how to post, how to be safe, adding images, leaving a comment, and how to change font.  mY students wrote the script, directed and acted in this, oh how I love it when kids teach kids.


    Let Them Learn about War

    "Oh, you let them build a war model?" another adult is scanning our products from  our Innovation Day.  "I don't think I would let them do that..." and so begins my train of thought.  Did I do something wrong by allowing Jack to build a model of D-Day?  Should I have steered him toward something kinder, more 4th gradeish, should learning about war be a one time occurrence?

    I guess I hadn't even thought about it.  After all, I asked the kids to do something they were passionate about, something that would keep them focused an entire day, something that we had perhaps not covered. Jack loves the history of wars.  He is good at it too.  All year whenever we came close to a war in social studies, and there are many of them, he is the one that adds the facts that I would never remember, the facts that bring the other kids in, the facts that put the human face on war.  His passion is contagious too and other kids have checked war books out from the library because of him.  Should I have stopped them?

    I realize that I teach 9 and 10 year olds who are not ready to know the true devastation and horror of war, and yet, the sheltering that occurs in America of our students, the rewriting of history so to say, is taking on epic proportions.  You don't need to look further than the recent rewrite of Huckleberry Finn for proof.  Yet we have to realize that our history is not made up of unicorns and rainbows, or even peace and understanding.  Our history is one of a cycle of violence, people who fight for change, and in that fight, there are battles.  If we do not teach our students about the fight, then how will they ever appreciate the outcome?  I don't go into horrific details about the injuries or torture or anything of that sort, but we learn about it so that we can understand our world a little bit better.  

    It happens again; a child wonders whether he is allowed to add a sword fight in his fairy tale.  Perplexed I ask him why he is even asking, after all, there are many battles or fights in fairy tales.  He tells me that some teachers don't allow it.  Again, I wasn't aware that this would be a problem.  Of course, there are battles in stories, particularly in the stories written by my boys.  And that's it isn't it?  Is it because we as female teachers prefer stories about love, compassion, and friendship?  Is it because we do not relate to the need for action, for fights, for valor and bravery?  I have never had a female student write a battle story and yet I think some day I will.  So I want to keep the option open.  I want my students to feel that they can write whatever they please as long as it fits within the requirements we have determined.  I want my students to know that this world is a messed up place that we are continually trying to enhance and we can only do that by learning from our previous mistakes.  We have to stop the sanitization of our history, in essence, we have to bring back the violence, the grittiness, the not so perfect human side, that makes us all human.

    So let's stop the unnecessary fixing of our curriculum.  We have to give time to the battles and wars so that all of our students can learn from them.  We have to stop skipping the "bad" parts and only focusing on the good.   We have to embrace the interests of our boys and cater to them as well.  They are equal partners in learning and deserve their chance to express themselves creatively.  

    Saturday, June 4, 2011

    Turn that Countdown Around

    I used to love the countdown, 20 more days until school is over, thank goodness!  What a way to excite the kids and make sure they had no focus the last month of school.  So I stopped it in my room but then realized that others still had them up in the hallways.  Hmm, I could not walk around and ask everyone not to do it (sorry Kirk) so I instead I chose to work with it.

    This year since about 18 days left of school, we have mentioned just how many days are left, but instead of heralding summer vacation's arrival, we have focused on all we need to get done.  In previous years, I would let the kids meander a bit, read leisurely, and finish projects while going at their own speed.  Not this year.  In fact, I just introduced a final project Thursday with only 4 days left to complete it.  These kids love it.  Instead of being bored in their classroom waiting for that last magical bell to freedom, there is a sense of urgency or purpose within my room.  My students ask for projects and ask to be challenged, and I am happy to oblige.

    It is this sense of urgency that has propelled us all year.  We have not rushed but rather focused on our goals and set timelines that accommodates everyone.  If someone finished early, they got more time for an extension project.  There is always learning to be done.  So as the countdown continues and is now at 4 days left, my students cannot believe it.  "You mean this year is over?  But it just started!"  This year has rushed by, much like time tedns to do, and yet we have accomplished more than what we set out to do.  We cherish the moments we still have left and work hard to learn even more in 4th grade.  Even though the days are numbered, our learning is not, so embrace the countdown, share with the kids how precious your time with them is and how much there still is to learn.  Make it exciting, give them choice, let them create, and enjoy these final days together.  Count them down together, fore a new adventure awaits.

    For a great post on why you shouldn't embrace the countdown, please see Jesse McClean's fantastic post "A Case Against the Countdown."

    Thursday, June 2, 2011

    Our Favorite Memories

    I often wonder whether I made a difference, I think after watching this video, made by my students, I know the answer.


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