Sunday, October 30, 2011

Oh Wow - An Adventure with my Livescribe

Recently, thanks to a wonderful member of my PLN (I won't name him so he doesn't get inundated with requests) I was mailed a LiveScribe pen.  I have wanted one of these little wonders for a long time thinking it would help me assess my students, keep a record of their progress and also let them hear my thoughts about their work.  Having 25 students in my room means I simply do not get as much time to sit down one-on-one with them to give them all of their needed feedback.  The Livescribe pen allows me to record my thoughts and then have them listen to it so we can start a dialogue.

Life has gotten in the way a bit, though, so I haven't had enough time to really get to know the tool and thus had not used in a professional sense yet.  The opportunity finally came Monday where  I was involved in an integration day for one of my students with special needs.  This is where the genius
of this little pen shone brightly; during the meeting I was able to take notes and record the goal discussion that was happening in the room. I, of course, informed the meeting participants that I was recording and then we started to work.  I now have notes and a recording of what we discussed should be this student's main goals accessible to me at any time.  Sheer brilliance.

The recording has already been shared with other members involved in the child's education and I am planning on referring to it throughout the year as we try to keep him engaged and involved in the learning. One click of the button and now my memory can fault me all i want, I have it all right there.

PS:  In a way you can say this is a sponsored post since I was given the pen for free to try out, but the enthusiasm is genuine.  I am already excited about the other possibilities of using the pen; hello post-observation conference!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Giving Grades is the Easy Way Out

Somewhere in the grade debate, colleges came into the picture.  As in if you don't grade a student, they will never be able to get into college.  However, this simply isn't true, in fact Alfie Kohn just discussed it in his latest article "The Case Against Grades."  In it he also makes the point that even if a college did require grades, they don't care about the grades from middle school or elementary school.  And yet as a nation we are obsessed with numbers and ranks.  We love to sort our children and compare them to others. Unfortunately because we have so many to get to, we do it the easy way; by assigning them a letter grade based on a percentage.

Now, you may think that I am bashing teachers who grade, but no, I am discussing the system that requires us to do so.  I grade.   I have to for trimester report cards, that is also the only time my students see a letter grade.  It is decided upon through a conversation between the student and where we discuss their progress and their goals.  Also, don't confuse this for an attack on assessing students, because it is not.  Grades do not equal assessment at all times.

So let's be frank, it is way easier for me to grade my students than it is to properly assess them.  Grading means I can tell them when something is due, collect it from them, take it home and based upon a rubric or key I assign their percentage which then translates into a grade.  All I then have to do is enter it into my gradebook and hand it back to the child.  Assessment done.  I don't need to speak to the child about their work because it would not change how they did.  I could also dock them points if they handed it in late, or didn't have their name on it.  I could dock them points for neatness or creativity, because I am the judge of both of those.

True assessment is messy and time consuming.  It involves speaking to the children about their work and their progress.  You have to find the time to speak to all of them about whatever they are working on.  You have to actually listen while they speak and brainstorm together.  And this can't be a one-time visit either if the project is larger, then you have to find the time for multiple check-ins.  When the project is finished you look through it with the child.  You discuss its strengths, its weaknesses and how it could be improved.  You discuss what they have learned, what they have discovered, and sometimes you even let them take it back and work on it some more.  Those conversations don't translate into neat percentages.  They don't translate well into grades because my "A" is going to be different from anyone else's "A."  Together you assess and perhaps even find new venues for learning.  You walk away feeling that you know the child, their knowledge, their passions and what they need to focus on.  Percentages don't tell you that.

Now I know what some will say; I don't have time to discuss all of this with my students, especially people who have more than one classroom.  And to them I say; who decides what your assignments look like?  Who decides how the time is spent in the classroom?  We have more power over how we teach than we think, even with all of the crazy standards and regulations we all face.  We decide how the time is spent in our rooms, how material is covered, how students learn together.  We decide more than we know.

So next time you sit down to grade an assignment, wonder whether it can be done a different way.  Wonder whether this is truly giving you the best perception of the child's learning and growth.  You might be surprised of what you realize.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Please Don't Mark It Wrong - How Our Society Raise Children Afraid to Fail

Another child stands by me asking for my help, 5 seconds after the assignment has been given, "But I just don't get it, Mrs. Ripp..."  And I ask, because this is the 3rd time today that this child has come up to me immediately into work time, "Well, did you try?"  She hasn't, she is scared, and she admits it readily;  "Please don't circle it.  Please don't mark it wrong."  So upset, she raises her voice, pleads with me as if my circle matters.  As if my marker holds the power.  And I am stumped because how does a 5th grader get that scared of failing?

The truth is we are doing this to kids, we, this society in pursuit of perfection is doing it to our kids, because it was done to us as well.  My daughter, who granted is only a wise two and a half year old is not afraid to fail.  She gets frustrated sure, but she tries and tries and then sometimes tries again.  We encourage this at home, urging her on, urging her to explore, to pick herself up.  Again, again, again.  Will she be the child in 8 years that stands petrified in front of me, asking for help because trying seems too daunting?

No teacher or parent tries to make their child afraid of failure.  Yet our practices in schools support this notion that failure is the worst thing that can happen.  An incorrect answer on a test pulls down your grade, you get enough, and you get an F for failure stamped across it for the world to see.  That F means nothing valid, nothing worth reading here, nothing worth.  Homework that is meant to be practice is tabulated, calculated, and spit out on our report cards.  The child who gets the answer right is heralded as smart, the child who gets it wrong is told to keep trying and maybe they will get it someday.

How we run our classrooms directly affect how students feel about themselves.  About how they feel about their own capabilities and their own intelligence.  I fail all the time in front my kids, not on purpose, I try stuff and it doesn't work and we talk about it.  And yet,  I am not perfect either.  I catch myself in using practice problems as assessment, where really they should be viewed just as practice.  I praise the kids that get it right and sometimes don't praise the ones that kept persisting but never reach a correct answer.  I don't alway have enough time to explore all of the options so I guide the kids toward success knowing that some venues will lead them to failure.  I shield them from it sometimes because I don't want to crush their spirits.

We have to stand up for our children and we have to turn this notion around that failure is the worst thing that can happen.  Failure is not the worst; not trying is.  We have to keep our kids believing in themselves and having enough confidence to try something.  If we don't we are raising kids that follow all of the rules, that never take risks, that never discover something new.   And that failure is too big to remedy.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

So You Want to Do Mystery Skype?

Mystery Skype is one of those ideas I wish I had thought because it just so fun but instead I was lucky enough to hear about it from Caren MacConnell.  The concept is simple:  classrooms Skype call each other and try to guess where the other classroom is located either in the United States or in the world.   There are many great resources out there but for my own sanity I am creating one list for future reference:

Before the call:
  1. Sign up - there are many places to sign up and some are even grade level based.  I signed up a couple of places but also tweeted it out; the response was immediate as a lot of people are doing this.  If you would like to sign up:
    1. 4th Chat Mystery Skype
    2. 6th Chat Mystery Skype
    3. Mystery Country/Mystery State
  2. Decide on a date and time - don't forget to consider in timezones.
  3. Prepare the kids
    1. We wanted to know facts about our own state so that we would be ready for any question.  We therefore researched the following questions: climate, region, neighboring states, time zone, capital, famous landmarks, geographical location.  All of this gave the students a better grip of what they might be asked.
    2. We also brainstormed questions to possibly ask.  We like the concept of the questions having to have yes or no answers as it makes the game a little harder and has the students work on their questioning skills.  Questions we came up with included whether they were in the United States, whether they were east of the Mississippi, Whether they were West of the Rocky Mountains, If they were in a specific region, whether they border other countries, whether they are landlocked etc. 
    3. Give jobs.  I think it is most fun when the kids all have jobs, so this was a list of our jobs:
      1. Greeters - Say hello to the class and some cool facts about the class - without giving away the location.
      2. Inquirers - these kids ask the questions and are the voice of the classroom.  They can  also be the ones that answer the questions.
      3. Answerers - if you have a lot of kids it is nice to have designated question answerers - they should know their state facts pretty well.
      4. Think tanks - I had students sit ina group and figure out the clues based on the information they knew.  Our $2 whiteboards came in handy for this.
      5. Question keepers - these students typed all of the questions and answers for us to review later.
      6. Google mappers - two students were on Google maps studying the terrain and piecing together clues.
      7. Atlas mapper - two students used atlases and our pull down map to also piece together clues.
      8. Clue keepers - worked closely with answerers and inquirers to help guide them in their questioning.
      9. Runners - Students that runs from group to group relaying information.
      10. Photographer - takes pictures during the call
      11. Clue Markers - These students worked with puzzles of the United States and maps to remove any states that didn't fit into the clues given.
      12. Problem solver - this student helped students with any issues they may encounter during the call.
      13. Closers - End the call in a nice manner after guesses have been given.
During the Call:
During the call you just have to step back and trust the kids.  My students were incredible, both with their enthusiasm and their knowledge, I think I was more nervous than they were.  I did have to fact check some of their answers so I did stay close by but otherwise it ran pretty smoothly.  We decided which class would go first with their first question and then there were two options:
  • Yes answer: They get to ask another question.
  • No answer - Other team's turn to ask a question.
Students were allowed to guess whenever they thought they had a great answer (and it was their turn).  In the end, both classes were able to guess each other's location.
One note; DOn't allow kids to use the Internet to tyr to google the other class - it spoils the geographical purpose of the challenge.

For our preparation for this, I showed the kids this video on Linda Yollis' blog - it really gave the students a concrete example of what to expect and they got very excited. Also Mr. Avery has a great discussion of jobs he had students do during the call. 
Jerry Blumengarten also has a nice collection of links on one of his many pages that was helpful to me.

Here is a video of our first call with Joan Young's class

We are already excited to try it again!

Monday, October 24, 2011

So We Lost...But We Didn't Really

So what do you think when you see you are no longer in the running to win The Great American Teach Off?  Bummedness at first, after all $10,000 is almost half my net salary and would go an incredibly long way in my school, but then something else... relief.  You see, who would want to be at their most innovative 4 years into their teaching career?  Who would want to peak at such a young age when I have so many years of teaching still left in me?  I hope that when I am 70, I can look back at my years of teaching and see the change, the progress.

So while my students were so disappointed, I was just fine with the news.  We have new challenges to face, new ideas (and old ones) to explore, and new things to learn.   We are on to the next adventure; thank you for believing and thank you for voting for us.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Why Are So Many Students Absent?

Today Education Week is running a poll on their Facebook page asking the question:
What do you think would be the most effective in combating absenteeism?

The choices:

  • Reaching out to parents
  • Harsher discipline for students
  • Establishing truancy officers
  • More before - and after-school programs
  • Community-based efforts
And while some of these ideas are not bad, the most effective method isn't even mentioned:  
Have engaging curriculum with student choice.  Until we make school worth coming to, students are not going to be invested.

Really, Education Week, you couldn't think of that?

The Creation of the Lifelong Learner

Crossposted from The Cooperative Catalyst

“Mommy!!!  BUG!!!”  Thea screams at me as we walk around our deck.  ”Lookit mommy, bug,” she runs to me grabs my hand and pulls me near. Behold; the lifelong learner sans education.
Children are naturally curious; if you give them a box they are not allowed to open, they will beg and beg until they finally get to peek inside.  If you tape a box on the floor of your classroom, they will continue to guess at its purpose even past the big reveal.  Children do not need rules to be curious, or even strategies. They are born with this ability.  Now as educators we may fine-tune these skills but schools cannot take credit for their natural curiosity.
So why is it so many schools have a vision statement that includes “creating lifelong learners?”  Why this need to take credit for something they have not indeed created?   Do schools really think that children are not learners when they first enter the hallowed hallways and they therefore need to be fixed?   What an offensive statement to parents everywhere.  Yet schools and the rigidity of some classrooms can often be the reason that the lifelong learner is stymied.  Schools end up breaking the child’s curiosity only to try to take credit for it being re-built.
I would like to see a school with a vision that declares they want to “maintain lifelong learners.”  I would like to see a vision in which children are recognized as the insatiably curious learners they truly are.  We have to change our schools to allow time for curiosity and true exploration.  We are not in the business of creating robots, and yet, that is the direction our government wants to push us.  Bring back the curiosity, maintain the lifelong learner, and perhaps then our system wont seem so broken.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Come Into Our Room

You say our kids are failing, not learning enough.  I say come into my room and see these kids.  Come into my room and tell them to their face that are failing, that they are not doing enough to learn.  To maintain, to comprehend, to test better.  Those kids you talk about happen to be my kids as well.  Those kids you mention in your articles, in your rhetoric, in your posts that tell us teachers that we are not doing enough, those kids are in my room.  And those kids.... they work and they work hard.

They get so excited sometimes that they yell out.  They get so loud in their planning that I just let them work because I don't want to intrude.  They break their pencils because they just want to scribble so fast when inspiration strikes. They come to me and wonder what else can we do?  What other things may we try?  Is this idea any good?  And I say yes, try it, do it, think it, dream it.  You may not think that our kids are doing enough in school.  You may not think that our kids are learning enough.  I say, come into my room and we will prove you wrong.

Friday, October 21, 2011

When We Compare Test Scores

When we compare students based on test scores, we assume that when they took the test...
  • They have had a good night's sleep
  • They are not hungry
  • They do not have any family or friendships issues distracting them
  • They have all had access to the same information
  • They have all had the same chance for practice
  • They have all had the same teaching leading up to the test
  • They all have the same type environment in which to take the test
  • They all speak and understand English at the same level
What if just one of those assumptions is incorrect, or worse,  what if they all are?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Ability Grouping Versus Tracking - What's in a Name?

For a while now I have been wondering about the language we use as we group our students.  Not so much the labels we use but the method of grouping used.  For guided reading, you are supposed to group students at their reading level, which then in turn creates ability groups.  This is considered a great thing for teaching students at their targeted levels.  And I tend to agree, I do some whole class book discussions but for deeper teaching of reading strategies I like to meet with smaller groups to discuss pertinent strategies with books they can understand.  And that according the guided reading is what I should be doing; placing students with similar leveled students or similar skilled students so that they can work at the same task.

For math you can do flex grouping, also based somewhat on ability as determined through pre-tests and personalties, and this too is totally permissible.  It allows for smaller groups and different pacing of curriculum, as well as remediation and enrichment.

Yet, if you take away the gentler names and introduce the word "tracking", then both of these scenarios lose their luster.  So I wonder, out loud as usual, is ability grouping really just tracking with a kinder name?

If we ability group in elementary are we setting students on their path for the rest of their academic career or are we indeed teaching them within their zone of proximal development and then spurring further growth?  Are we able to group students in such a way that all are challenged at their level without breaking them apart?  Can we effectively meet every single child's needs within in a classroom setting during our instruction time without identifying which skill they specifically need to work on and them grouping them to work on them?

I would love your thoughts on this.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


As I look around the classroom I see the piles, the papers, the snack wrappers.  I see the posters in progress, some ideas scribbled out, doodles and even a wayward shoe.   Computers that have been left on, carpet squares haphazardly stacked, and pencils on the floor.  When I started teaching this would have stressed me out.  I would have spent a half an hour or more straightening, re-hanging those posters and throwing out whatever I saw fit.  I would have wiped, sanitized, and organized.  Perhaps I would even have labeled and checked my supplies that nothing was missing.  I would have made a note to myself to talk to the kids about how they needed to clean more, how we need a clean and organized classroom to function well.  How their stuff shouldn't be messed in with my stuff.

Now I organize myself, leave their piles, smile as I shut off the lights and think, "This is their room now."

Monday, October 17, 2011

We Did It to Ourselves

Play nice, don't fight, don't whisper and give compliments.  Share, take interest and never, ever be critical.  Highlight others before yourself, don't ask for special treatment, share your voice but take turns.  Rules we teach our kids?  Sure, but also rules that we teachers are expected to follow.  So when we look around and wonder how we as a group get such little respect by some politicians, by some media, even by some parents, administrators, and fellow teachers, the truth is; we did it to ourselves.

Teachers are their own worst enemy it seems.  We are not expected to share our successes in case someone gets offended that they are not being highlighted.  We are not expected to shine a light on the things we do well in our jobs, and there are many, because someone may get jealous.  We shouldn't draw attention, rather pass it to our kids.  We shouldn't tell people our pay, or how many hours we put in but rather stand as saints hoping someone might notice.  Indeed we are expected to stand up for our students, but not for ourselves because it is just so uncouth.  We are supposed to be selfless, with no wants besides the basics; food, shelter, and maybe some respect.  We are not supposed to say that we would like better pay for the incredible amount of work we do.  We are not supposed to say; look at me, look at what I do, and give me some respect.  (Which yes, can be done in a nice manner, that then can be easily dismissed).

Teachers should play nice, like we tell our students.  Don't cause too many waves because it is unbecoming of our profession.  Don't raise your voice too much because you may offend.  Whatever happens to us, happens, because we choose to not raise our voice, to not band together, and instead waste our time fighting amongst ourselves.  It is time to rise up, it is time to raise our voice, to occupy our classrooms and stand tall.  To highlight the incredible work we do, to get the respect we deserve.  To be treated like we treat our students.  So as I give my students  a voice, I allow myself to speak as well. We are the 99% and together our whispers will become a roar.


Our Second Week Video

We made it into the third round of the Great American Teach Off.  If you are one of th epeople who voted for us, thank you from the bottom of our hearts!  The kids are so excited and are coming up with fair ways we could spend the $10,000 to have the biggest impact on our school.  there are so many things that could be used.  So here is last week's video that ensured our survival.


Saturday, October 15, 2011

Why Students Should Blog - My Top 10

Image: Kristina B

I have written about it before, I will write about it again I am sure, so here is why students should blog:
  1. They have an actual audience to write for.  The writing is no longer just for me but the whole world. When we write science diaries, we have scientists write back to us and push their questioning skills.  When students write about a book they are reading, other students ask them questions and give them more recommendations.  When students go on vacations they write to us to tell us all about it.  You get the idea.
  2. You can track their writing progress.  I have always had them keep track of their writing in their binders but invariable papers got lost.  Here I can see their growth, print it out and hand it to them.  I can have them focus on specific skills, just like regular writing, but they can go in and edit on their own time.  They can see their growth and the electronic version seems to appeal to them more.
  3. It opens a dialogue.  Students have a direct line to their teacher and to anyone else they are connected with.  Blogging helps us write back to each other, but great blogging is like a conversation with questions and critique.  My students are learning how to engage in written dialogue with topics they care about. 
  4. It establishes their internet identity in safe manner.  Students are getting on the internet earlier and earlier so as teachers it is vital we embrace this opportunity to teach them safety.  My students know the safety rules by heart and help each other follow them.  By being on the internet and establishing a presence they are actively practicing staying safe rather than just talking about it.
  5. They teach each other.  Numerous times my students have corrected misconceptions or created new awareness of concepts being taught within our room.  They become teachers rather than just students in our classroom and blogging allows them to continue that outside our classroom walls.
  6. They are global citizens and global collaborators.  We speak of creating global citizens but then forget to actually connect kids with kids.  My students know where places in the world are because they speak to kids from those places.  We have connections around the world that we can use when we study other places and this year my students will even be working on a project together with another classroom.
  7. Transparency.  Too often teachers shut their doors to the world rather than sharing the amazing things we concoct along with or students.  Blogging opens up that door and shows the whole world what is happening.  My students have more than once inspired other teachers to try a project.
  8. They become aware of themselves as writers.  Students start to create their own essence as a writer first playing around with fonts but then creating tag lines for their blogs and deciding how they want to present themselves to the world as writers.  This is powerful at the elementary age.
  9. I can easily check in on their learning.  When my students blog about a concept I can quickly see whether they are understanding the essential concepts or need another learning opportunity.  
  10. You give them a voice.  Students need a way to express themselves to take ownership of their learning, so through our blog students tell the world their thoughts on education, their learning and their needs.  I am a better teacher because of their blogging.
I could keep going but I hope that this inspires you to try it.  Reach out, connect, I will gladly help anyone that wants to try blogging with their students.  My students tell me now that blogging is one of the best things that has ever happened to them.  To see their work and their thoughts visit them here

For more reasons why students should blog, check out this post:


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Why I Oughta....

"If you don't hand this in tomorrow, I am taking away two recceses..."
"If you don't quiet down and focus, I will give you extra homework..."
"If you don't start doing your work, you will not go on the field trip...."

These statements all came from me my first 2 years of teaching.  Always threatening to reach compliance, always promising the kids doom and gloom if they didn't do exactly as I said.  I thought I had control.  I was wrong, what I had instead, was compliance.  I didn't have buy in or engagement.  I didn't have kids that were excited about the learning, I didn't have kids that couldn't wait to come to school. 

So what changed?  I did.  I realized that the classroom I wanted to be a part of couldn't be one of threats. It couldn't be one where students felt they had to do something because the teacher said it and not because they found it interesting or worthwhile.  I couldn't have a classroom where the kids just went through the motions, worked within the system and just survived school.  I didn't want them to just survive, I wanted them to thrive. So I decided no more" if you don't do this then this bad thing will happen."  No more "Why I oughta's" out of me.  No more fooling myself into believing that the kids automatically should respect me, I had to earn it from them.

So that next year I had the kids set the rules, they already knew them after all.  We didn't write them down or post them on our walls.  We discussed and moved on.  We changed the rules when we needed to.  When a child didn't finish their homework, which there was very little of anyway, they had to tell me in the morning and take responsibility.  If they told me they had left it at home, I believed it.  The kids would choose how to get their work done, they could stay in for recess if they needed help otherwise they knew it was expected the next day.  I was honest with the kids, I sometimes forgot to do stuff as well or life got in the way.  My kids didn't become less compliant by me removing the threats, they started to work harder because the work was worth their time.  They knew that if I asked them to do something it was because I had deemed the work worthy of their time. 

It wasn't perfect, but guess what; nothing ever is.  But is is me and it is us and it works.  Those kids, I respect them and I have earned their respect.  I have set a healthy example for them that hopefully they can use outside of school.  Don't just demand but build a relationship, how them that you respect them as learners and as human beings.  Show them they are worth it.


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Our First Week Video

Now that we have made it into the second week of the Great American Teach Off, I promised my kids I would share our first video on my blog.  So promise kept kids!


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

When Students Are Afraid to Try

Today it smacked me right in the face; what I am so disheartened over, what I am fighting to end, what I think is one of the downfalls of the way we educate.  It wasn't something grand, nor something I had expected and yet there it was; taunting me to do something about it, making me feel oh so powerless.  What was this beast, you ask, fore it must have been epic?  Well, in my world it was because it was kids afraid to try...

My kids, those who I fail in front of all of the time.  Those kids who are not afraid to try something new, to create, to think of wacky ideas.  Those kids that try again and again and again every day, they just froze.  Came to me in droves, asking for help, giving up without even putting their pencil to the paper.  The culprit?  Having to create a data-set that fit the clues; one math problem.  Frustrated at first I told them to just try, mess around with some numbers, attack it whichever way they thought made sense.  Just do something.  And yet they didn't.  They had given up, they had surrendered to this math problem, it simply made them feel stupid.

So this evening, sitting at the dinner table I shared my story with Brandon, who does more teacher reflection than the average teacher it seems.  I asked "Why?  Why were they so afraid to try?"  He stated, "Failure."  And I think he is right.  My kids, my adventurous, smart 5th graders, were afraid to fail.  Were afraid to not get it right, so instead of trying it, they simply refused.  That way I would have to show them how, I would never know that they were not smart enough to do it, I would never know that this itty bitty problem had matched them, even if none of this was true.

So what do we do when the kids are afraid to even try?  What do we do when all of the times we have failed in front of them is forgotten?  When they have started to believe that if they cannot get it right, they should not even attempt it?  I have a classroom were we thrive on failed attempts, learn from our mistakes, and always pick ourselves up and yet today that all vanished.  Tomorrow it will be back, I am sure, those kids will be daring again, but today, they were simply scared and all I can think to myself is; what have we done to our kids?


One of My Happiest Places


Monday, October 10, 2011

What Happens to the Doodlers?

Recently Richard Byrne shared the fantastic short TED video by Sunni Brown called "Doodlers Unite."  (Shown below).  Being a lifelong doodler myself, and also one that has realized how much my students do it, I was eager to share the video with the rest of my school and see how they reacted.  So imagine my delight, when my principal emailed me the following story today:

The framed pencil sketch of "Mr. Rykal's class" on my wall is from my first classic doodler. When he was in 4th grade, I went to him, ripped a doodle page from his notebook, and then stapled it to my bulletin board. I told him if I couldn't stop him from doodling, I was going to be the first person to own his original work. The result was the portrait.

Later, when he graduated from HS, he sent me a note, thanking me for recognizing that he had to doodle.

He is now an artist who illustrates children's books. I purchased one for our library, and a couple years ago emailed him a picture of the portrait on my wall.

As a new teacher, I was always the one that would try to "catch" students not paying attention and doodling was definitely one of my many "clues" as to who was aptly listening and who wasn't.  I assumed that if they were busy with their hands there was no way my fascinating lecture could be captivating them as well.  Often, my doodlers would be embarrassed by being called out in front of the class like that and their  doodling would disappear.  I wanted control so badly of my room that I confused it with controlling my students' every move as well.

It wasn't until two years ago, when I realized that some people focus much better when they doodle and perhaps I had just given doodling a bad name.  What was an annoying habit that I needed to get rid of, was something I myself do when I sit in meetings.  Oops.  Big learning moment when I realized that.   And now I wonder how many students grow into be artists when we let them doodle?  How many students discover their love of using tools to create when they doodle?  How many students focus more aptly because their hands are busy?  I now encourage doodling in my classroom as we work and have had students share their doodles as well.

So there we have it - Doodling isn't wasteful, it is an art-form, something that helps students focus.  Rejoice and celebrate the doodling.


Sunday, October 9, 2011

10 + 1 Lessons I Learned the Hard Way

Image from here

Sometimes life smacks you in the face and makes you change your ways for the better.  Fortunately in education, this happens quite a bit, unfortunately it is not always in the most pleasant way.  I present a list of my lessons I learned the hard way.
  1. You may be really excited about something but that does not mean anyone else will be.  I joined Twitter more than a year ago and I have yet to convince anyone close to me of its value.  I remain undeterred in my plug for Twitter but at the same time also realize that perhaps they just don't want to join.
  2. When you make a lot of changes, not everyone will think they are great.  I have changed many things in my classroom and while I see all of the amazing benefits, not everyone does.  I have many critics and my skin has grown a lot thicker, and yet, ouch.
  3. Not everyone wants to hear your opinion, even if you think it s a good one.  
  4. Not all parents want less homework.  I thought every parent would stand up and cheer at my decision to nearly eliminate homework, but no, some want a lot of homework for their children for various reasons.  I now encourage open dialogue on it and help out where I can.
  5. Lecturing does not engage - and neither does raising your voice and scolding the kids when they tune out.  I figured this one out after 2 years of teaching with glazed over eyes and less than enthusiastic students.  Now I look back at those two first years and shudder.
  6. Rewards diminish the learning.  I used to be a rewards fanatic but realized that kids focused more on which sticker they got then the feedback I gave them.  I also created a class divide in my room with the have's and the have not's.  If only I could tell all of those kids that I am sorry for what I did.
  7. When you think everything is going great, you are about to crash.  I don't know how many times I have been on a teaching high only to crash and burn wickedly.  Life changes quickly, so enjoy the "high" while you can.
  8. Putting your thoughts on a blog means everyone wants to debate with you.  Some will cheer, some will challenge, and some will just downright criticize.  Either way, you have to take the good with the bad; it is all part of developing your voice.
  9. Even the best classroom can have a bad day.  I used to beat myself up wondering what went wrong when the day feel apart.  Then I realized that sometimes there is just nothing to do it about it that day, what matters is that you start over the next day.
  10. I am not always right, even if I really, really want to be.  I have some pretty strong opinions and fortunately for me, sometimes they change.  That means I have had to apologize to people, publicly state the change and eat crow in a number of ways.  This is a not a bad thing, but a human thing.
  11. I am not the only teacher in the room.  I thought I was the ultimate authority on everything in my room, and loved to share my vast knowledge into those empty vessels that were my kids.  What a rude awakening when I realized that my students are not blank slates.  Now I remind myself daily to step aside and let them explore and teach each other and me.  


Saturday, October 8, 2011

An Ode to the Lost

Warning, this has nothing to do with education and everything to do with that which makes us humans.  It has to do with what shapes us, those life experiences that continue to haunt and fold our lives even long after they happened.  It may be too personal for some, but I share the story nonetheless so that others may feel less alone.

Yesterday, you would have been a year.  I am the only that knows that as others have moved on, away from the tragedy that is a pregnancy lost.  That child of ours, a year full of firsts again, of sleepless nights, of crying fits, of moments captured by cameras and film.  A year we never got.

And so I grieve privately.  The world would not have known that yesterday was the day we should have welcomed you one year ago, celebrated the miracle that would have been you.  I carried on, smiled over all of the blessings I do have, and I hugged Thea just a little bit more, knowing what a fine sister she would have been.  They say that losing a child is the most awful thing that can happen to you.  I never lost a child but I have lost the dream that becomes a child.  And yet the grief you feel over a miscarriage numbs you, changes you, while the world turns and continues.  It is so private, so hidden, particularly when it happens early, that you do not know what to do with your raw emotions, who to share it with, who to cry with.  And so us mothers to be, who lose the baby, move on as if nothing happened.  As if those days where we remember mean nothing special.  As if our grief has melted away along with the memory of what could have been.

And yet, I carry it with me.  I no longer cry, but I wonder what you would have been.  I wonder what our family would feel like?  How much more love there would be in this home?  We are doing fine, life treats us with kindness, and yet, I wonder about you.  Those dreams of you and what to do with them.  Yesterday you would have been a year, and instead there is nothing.  So this is to all those should-be mothers out there who have not forgotten, you are not alone, we remember together.

An Easy Statement

You know what is easy to say? That our education system is broken. It is also easy to say that it is because of standardized tests, because of politicians, too much red tape and clueless administrators. We need more money, we need smaller class sizes, more time, more enthusiasm. I could go on listing all of the things we need.

And yet, at some point we must own up to our own responsibility. At some point we must change our statements and no longer just say that the system is broken. At some point we must say, I am part of the solution. That perhaps not everything in the system is broken but that there are flaws and we can do something about it.

Saying the system is broken is too easy. It removes responsibility. Take the responsibility, be the change, and then spread the word.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Blogging Gave Me an Audience and Then Some

I never was a writer until I began to blog.  Perhaps I was a poet or at least I liked to call myself one as I dredged through hour upon hour of teenage self loathing in my journal.  I never was a writer though, just someone who liked to write but didn't know where to do it or what to even write about.  Then one day I blogged.  My husband told me to, said it would be good for me and I trusted him so I thought why not?  Little did he know how big of an effect blogging would have on our lives and on our family.

To blog is to bare ones soul, to have a conversation with the world; a conversation where anyone can become  a critic and anyone can become an inspiration.  I quickly realized you have to have thick skin to blog honestly.  And yet, blogging has allowed me to create friendships and work relationships with people globally.  Blogging has allowed me to send seeds of inspiration into the world and I have been lucky enough to be told that I have inspired others.  We choose how we represent ourselves to the world, and I represent myself through blogging.  I am not always right.  I am not always coherent.  I am not always positive even though I strive to be.  But I am always honest.  I want my blog to be a true reflection of the world I live in, the classroom I get to call home, and the incredible children that get to be part of my family.  So through my blog I invite others in to our world.  I invite others to see how a classroom can function with respect, love and honest communication.  I invite others to be the change, to be positive, and to give those children a voice.  I am no longer shouting to an empty room; blogging has given me an audience.  I am no longer alone, there are others out there like me.  What a relief.

This blog is in response to the Rockstar Meme on How Blogging Changed My World - thank you for the inspiration.

I now invite these 5 people to share their journey and their story as I feel it is an important one:
Josh Stumpenhorst 
Matthew Ray
Chris Wejr
Greta Sandler
Katie Hellerman


Thursday, October 6, 2011

I Can Change the World

Yes, it's true, we are small but we are not insignificant.  I may not be able to change the world, but I can change my classroom.  I can change my philosophy, I can change myself. 

So when I look around my room and I see those faces, I know they deserve the very best of me.  I know they deserve a room where there is no punishment, where there are no inane rewards in place.  They deserve to live life outside of school free from pointless homework and they deserve to know their progress and their goals. 

So through my change I change their school experience.  I change their minds that learning is static, boring, or pointless.  I change their perspective that teachers are out to get them.  I change myself so that I can help them go on their path.  Though we may think we cannot change the world, we can through our students.  The change starts within ourselves.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

We Made in On the News


I Am Not Sorry

As an educator, it seems I spend a lot of time apologizing. I apologize for trying new things. I apologize for speaking my mind. I apologize for seeming too busy to help, too frazzled to form sentences sometimes.  I apologize for doings things differently, or for going out on a limb. I apologize for being a union member, or for fighting for my kids. Just the last couple of weeks I have even been apologizing for being a finalist in the Great American Teach Off because some people may be upset at the recognition. All that time spent worrying and wondering if someone is upset with me, always ready with an I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.

So I am going to stop apologizing and just try that for a while because the truth is I am not always sorry.

I am not sorry for trying new things to spark the imagination of my children.

I am not sorry for listening to them and changing our learning to keep them engaged, involved and excited.

I am not sorry for standing up for my kids and getting them the help they need.

I am not sorry for trying to be innovative and for spreading the ideas.

I am not sorry for my passion and my deep belief that together we can be the change.

I am not sorry for my mother believing in me enough to submit me for a contest where someone realized that having a student-centered classroom, with no punishment, no rewards, limited homework and student driven grades is an innovative thing.

So this educator is standing up for herself and for my kids. There are many things to be sorry, but changing one's educational philosophy to something better is not one of them.  While I remain passionate, I also retain my humility.  I am not the only change agent.  I am not the only passion cultivator.  But I am ones of the ones saying I am sorry for changing things anymore.   Join me.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

But Wait, I 'm Only One Person

As I am continually awed by the incredible educators I get to teach with not only in my school, but also in the world, I am renewed in my already strong belief that we are the change.

We are the change for all of those children whose lives have been determined by assumptions, circumstance, and test scores outside of their control.

We are the change for all of those teachers who don't think they have a voice.  You do.  So although you may just be one person, there are so many things you can do to change the system.  To bring the focus back on the kids, on improving teaching conditions, and keeping our students passionate and curious.  So

Stand up for yourself.

Speak up - one voice joins the chorus and together we are louder.

Blog, write to the paper, get it out and spread the word.  Change will come if we continue to fight for it.

Join together - enough of the us versus them debate.  Enough with tearing other teachers down.  Show me a perfect teacher and I will show you 10 people that disagree.  We are not perfect nor should we ever think we are; embrace each other, and stand together, this is for the kids.

Tell them they matter.

Realize that you matter.

Try your ideas and then be proud if they work.  Be proud if they fail, at least you tried something.

Believe in them, believe in you, and believe in your team.

Be the change.  Be the change.  Be the change.

You may be just one but think of how far one person's words can go, the ripples they can start, the waves they can become.

5 Easy Things to Do to Cultivate Passion

I have been called many things, some wonderful some not so much , but passionate is one of the things I am most proud of.  And it is true, I am a passionate person.  I love my job, I love my kids, and the people that I surround myself with.  I passionately believe in student voice and active learning.  And yet passion in itself is not enough to change the world, we somehow need to pass it on.  So every day, I do these things to help my students stay passionate.

  1. We speak.  Without a relationship, they will never trust me enough to unleash their passion, so we take the time to cultivate one.
  2. I get excited and loud and really, really into it.  If I do not show my own passion, how can it spread?
  3. We disagree.  Knowing how to discuss is important for defending, articulating, and discovering ones passion, so we leave room for intense debates and pondering.  They must have time to think.
  4. They blog, they journal, they speak and they share.  This is where I see the seeds start to grow. 
  5. They discover new worlds with their hands, their eyes, and their brains.  Some students are passionate already, others are not so sure, but how will they ever find out what they are passionate about if we do not give them time to explore, break, build, and create?
What do you do share the passion?  To ignite it or to keep from distinguishing it?  Our classrooms should be passion cultivation areas; how do we get there?

To see how our room runs, and perhaps vote for us in the Great American Teach Off, please go to this website.  We have the chance to win $10,000 for our school which is sure to create some passionate debates.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

But Wait, I Thought You Hate Rewards?

I am in a interesting predicament.  This anti-rewards teacher has the potential of being rewarded through the Great American Teach Off and win a $10,000 classroom grant by being declared the winner over 9 other innovative educators.  So not only would I be singled out as a good educator but I would also be recognized at the expense of others.    So how does that all work?  Do I declare myself a hypocrite and say "whatever" to people may raise an eyebrow over the fact that I am celebrating being in this?  Or do I reflect and discuss exactly how it feels?  Yep, I chose to discuss, so some truths I have realized in this process:

  • It matters how the recognition happens.  I was nominated by my mother, which in my mind is about the greatest achievement there is.  The fact that someone I admire so much sees what I do every day and wanted to write someone and tell them about it, just floors me.  She took the time to highlight what I have done in my room, my vision for education, and all of the adventures my students have without wanting anything in return, without there being anything in it for her, without being told.  For some reason this resonates with me when I recognize my students' achievements.  I try to do it without prompt, without rewarding me in any sense, and also because I am proud of them so I take the time to give them time and really let them know how proud I am.  That's what makes them know they matter, much like my mother did.
  • There is a difference between recognition and rewards.  Yes, I am excited to be in the running for $10,000 for my kids because let's face it, I make what an average telemarketer makes a year and cannot buy the supplies I would like for my kids.   And yet what really excites me is that someone is recognizing that running a classroom with little homework, little grades, no punishment and no reward system is actually a good thing.  That giving students a voice is a great thing and that trying to create hands on learning opportunities for kids within a public school setting can be done.  So if that means being in a contest to get more validity behind what I do in my classroom; so be it, it then helps the cause of changing education.  I would be in this contest even if there wasn't a prize (and yes I was asked whether I wanted to be part of it when they called me to tell me of my finalist status because of all the work I had to do).
  • Recognition is different when it is after the fact.  I did not change a single thing in my classroom with the intent of being recognized for it.  I did not change the way I teach and the way I think about teaching because I hoped that someone would read my blog, or be inspired, or think I was doing a good job.  I did it because I had to.  All of those things that I am being recognized for I did because I knew it would benefit my students, help them continue to love learning, and drive their passion.  I did it because it was urgent for me and something that had to be done if I was to continue as a teacher.  Had I known there would be a contest at the end of it, I wonder if I would have been less fearless, more subdued in order to not upset anyone?  Perhaps I wouldn't have been so honest incase anyone got offended - and trust me, people get offended.  Perhaps, I would have done a Pernille Lite version of all of this.  And so I am glad I didn't know because when all of this is over (which it could be in a week), I am continuing on my path, doing what I do, and continuing my educational journey.
  • Wait...what I am doing?  Self-doubt and buckets of time, yes, this contest is an anxiety producing  time consumer.  Five 90 second videos take up a lot of time and add a lot of stress to someone who is an overachiever.  And yet, the day moves on and the kids and my family has to be my priority.  Their educational experience cannot suffer because I am distracted so shut it off.  Think of how our kids must feel if there is a competition within the room?  How distracted, anxious or excited they must feel.  Yeah, adults go through the same and it is hard to control it.
  • It is still a competition and honestly competitions makes losers out of all of us.  The fact that this is a popularity contest has not escaped me.  We get voted out of the contest by the public, not by how we have raised test scores (thankfully) or how engaged our students are (bummer), but by the impact of our video and how many people we know.  That bothers me.  And that must be exactly how our students feel when we have student council elections, prom queens, and any other vote.  Yes, it's great to be nominated but what if you don't win?  Or how do others feel because I was nominated and they weren't?  This does not mean I am better teacher than anyone else and yet that is what contests wants us to believe.  That you can declare a winner...but within education there doesn't seem to be any fair winners.  And I wonder whether there can be?  Is there a way for teachers to be recognized without hurting other people's feelings?  Do we even need to recognize teachers or should they just be happy through the love and admiration of their students?  Can teacher contests bring about change or do they just produce scorn within the education community?
So there you have it.  An honest self-dialogue laid out for the world to see.  Feel free to jump in, it is an interesting dilemma to be in, and I certainly do not have all of the answers.


Saturday, October 1, 2011

Why Have You Not Given Up Rewards Yet?

I used to be the queen of the awesome board, the gold  stickers, and definitely the special lunches and privileges.  I thought my kids loved it, and sure some did, but after a huge hallelujah moment, I realized the harm I was doing to my classroom and I ended all individual rewards.  So have you stopped handing out rewards in your classroom?  If not here are some reasons why you should consider it.

  1. Students don't actually need rewards to work.  Sure they work in the short-run but guess what after a while you have to up the ante and keep going up because it just isn't going to be very effective for long.  And yes, students will take rewards if you offer them, but they will actually also work without the perpetual carrot dangling in front of their noses.    And you won't believe me until you actually try it.   
  2. Rewards tend to go to the same kids over and over and over.  We say that it is really up to the students to get the rewards but at the same time we can probably all list the kids that would have a hard time earning one.  So then who are we fooling?
  3. Rewards split the students.  If you ever want to create a class of have and have not's in your classroom just hand out rewards; the students will quickly figure out who the "smart" kids are and who are not.  Or worse, who the teachers like and who they don't.
  4. Rewards devalue the learning.  By attaching a reward to a learning task, you are telling a student that the task is not worth doing if it weren't for the reward.  That is not how learning should be.  Learning should be fun, exciting, and curiosity driven, not mechanical and focused on the end point.  When a reward becomes the end point, then that is the focus.
  5. You keep giving rewards; the students won't work without it.  With rewards you create a culture of "what's in it for me?" and the learning just isn't enough.  And yet the learning and experience should be enough for the child, provided it is meaningful and purposeful.  So set them up from the beginning to earn rewards and soon there will be hardly any extra work or deeper digging into concepts.  If the child knows that they "just" have to do whatever to get a reward, or an A for that matter, then that is what they will do.  The learning stops wherever you dictate it to.
  6. The students will argue with you.  My first year students would get upset over which sticker I gave them because in their minds certain stickers were worth more.  A sticker!  Now equate that to extra recess, or books, or special lunches and think of the conflict it creates.  You want to make sure your struggling learners keep feeling more disenfranchised; keep up the rewards.
  7. Rewards become the measure of success. If you don't reward a child then they don't think they have succeeded.  No more handing them back a project with great feedback; if that sticker or some recognition isn't attached then it just isn't enough.  I had students collect stickers and notes to showcase to the other students, it became a competition of who could gather more.  It wasn't about what they had learned or how great a project was, it was only about that note.
  8. Students lose their voice in the learning process.  When a teacher is the only one deciding on success shown through rewards, the classroom does not belong to the students.  That teacher is therefore the ultimate power within the room and the kids know it.  If you want to create a student-centered classroom, you cannot have such a vast difference in learning authority.  To build the kids confidence they have to have a voice.
  9. But they all  get rewarded....  Some schools run weekly recognitions of students for whatever reason, or some classrooms do.  And while this may seem innocent enough, after all, there is nothing tangible tied to it, it still causes jealousy and anxiety.  If a program calls for recognizing every single student for the same things, then why are we recognizing in a public way in the first place.  Wouldn't it be easier just to state the expectations and then tell the kids that we are happy they are all living up to it?  There is no need to create weekly recognition if we are doing our jobs right as educators; making our students feel valued and respected as part of the learning community.
  10. Rewards create more work for the teacher.  I was so worried that everyone had been on my "Awesome board" that I kept track = more paperwork.  I also had to make sure that I was eating lunch with all of my students = more paperwork.  I also had to make sure I could justify to parents why one child got a certain privilege and another didn't = more paperwork.  Do you see where I am going?  Rewards and trying to keep it "fair and balanced" creates more work for us without providing any long-term benefits. 

So you may assume that my classroom is one stripped of rewards and recognition, yet it isn't.  My students have parties, except they get them after the fact, when we have something to celebrate.  I don't punish them if they are being rowdy, uncooperative or downright disrespectful,  but we have circles where we discuss our behavior and how we perhaps need to adjust it.  I have high expectations for my students to "represent" as much as they have for me.  We strive to create a learning environment where we all feel comfortable messing up and trying again, because we know that the learning journey is the focus and not just the end result.  So I recognize and I reward but I do it through the learning and the conversations.  I don't have a classroom where students expect things to do their jobs, I have a classroom of kids eager to learn, on some days more than others, but who are always willing to be a part of what we consider our second home; our classroom.  All without the use of rewards.


A $10,000 Opportunity

As some of you may know, a couple of weeks ago I was told I was one of 10 finalists in the Great American Teach Off.  This contest was created to highlight great elementary educators across the nation and I am frankly astounded to be part of the group.  And yet, here I am super excited, super proud of the work I do and very eager to showcase it.  Not only that but the grand prize in the contest is $10,000 for my classroom.  

The last two weeks I have been very busy creating videos highlighting my students and how we are innovative and making a difference and now I need your help.  The final part of the contest is a nationwide vote-off.  Every week they post a video and the lowest two vote-getters will be eliminated until finally one is left standing.  I do feel like I am on American Idol right now, but thankfully it is not my singing chops being evaluated but rather me as a teacher.

Voting starts on Monday at 1 PM at www.good.is/gato and you can vote once a day for the week.  If I survive the first week then I have to get people to vote the following week and so on.  

So if you have a moment, would you please consider voting for my classroom (on Monday)?  

These students work their hearts out, sharing their journeys with the world, and we try to be innovative within the very rigid public school framework.  I am proud of the accomplishments of my students, their eagerness to try and fail, and their willingness to share it all with the world. 

$10,000 for us would mean more books in our library, perhaps a new gym floor, or even carpet in our classroom so we could snuggle up with good books.  There are many deserving educators out there and I am one of many, so here is our chance to get more money into a public school and that is a wonderful thing.


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