Once Upon a Time, I WAS That Newbie

Every year, at the beginning of the school year, I remember my first year in Albemarle County.  I remember it for a lot of reasons, but as our tenth day of school approaches, I remember back to when I was a newbie and I got a job AFTER school started–so the 2 established classes of 30 got to each lose 10 kids to my new class. The teachers were what I call Crozetians–which means they had been here, they knew the community and families and school volunteers and all that other stuff that good teachers know about the culture of their school. So when I was hired, the principal gave me a few days to set up my room while school was going on and I got to learn my way around a little.

I was excited to begin with the kids.  (There’s a skunk story in there, but I’ll save it for another time.) I was getting 20 4th graders and had done student teaching in 4th grade, so I felt like I knew a bit about what I was doing. Plus, I was young, confident, enthusiastic and idealistic (none of which I’ve lost, except the young part!)

I have a good memory, but as any of you who teach know, when you’ve done it for a while, the years somewhat blur together. I remember which grade I taught someone in, but probably not the exact year. However, I bet I could pretty much name almost every, if not every, kid in that class, it made such an impression on me. You see, the two teachers had total control over which kids they put in my class.  I got ten from each of them. Yep, those of you who are veterans can suspect which ten I got from each classroom.

It took me until about January to have enough experience with the other two classes through sharing math and reading groups to realize my homeroom class make up was quite different from the others. I had no gifted kids–had some bright ones, but NONE of the top kids in the grade level. I knew the resource teacher well, as she worked with quite a few of my kids. I had a disproportionately high group of free and reduced lunch kids. I had no PTO officer parents or regular school volunteers in that class. I had two kids who were stepbrothers–one’s father had married the other’s mother and the families were NOT friendly to each other. (Did these two veterans TALK to each other about the kids they gave me????) I had the kids who everyone in the school knew because of their behavior. (I still have a vivid memory and picture in my mind of one boy in line jumping up to touch the clock on the hall wall and it falling and shattering all over the floor. THAT was fun to go report to the principal as a first year teacher.) I quit sending home book orders–I never even got the minimum order, while the others classes collected hundreds of points each month with their orders. When we went on field trips, I had to scrounge for parents to join us–the other classes always took some of my allocated parent seats, as I couldn’t fill them.

But you know, if you looked at those kids on paper–reading groups, past scores, etc.,–the classes looked relatively even.  It was the cultural knowledge–the things we teachers think about as we get a new class each year to label it in our minds as “easy” or “good” –or not–that made mine different.  It’s the community things–parents who volunteer, families who are known to support their kids at home or not, parents who buy from the book orders, kids who work hard or who have a work ethic or not, talkers/chatterers, socially adept kids (or not), behavioral issues, combos of kids to put together or not, kids who eat heathily –or who are overweight and prone to teasing–and on and on.  The two veterans had to have known what they were doing when they gave me the combo of kids they did.

I had a great year with those kids anyway.  I loved them–they were my first class in this school system and they laughed with me as I learned how to run a classroom, and they cried with me–especially as I read aloud “Where the Red Fern Grows.” (I’ve NEVER read that book aloud again–I’m too quick to tears reading sad things!)  They let me teach them and they taught me. My principal let me individualize my math program and they worked through the book at their own pace, so I had plenty of time to work with kids who needed it.  These kids reacted to my enthusiasm, my forward thinking and my love to become a really cool group of kids. That’s one of my favorite groups ever, and I love hearing about what they are doing now. In fact, I get to have kids of those kids in my current school sometimes–and two years ago, I had the kid of that boy who broke that clock. . . we laughed about that incident because he remembered it too!  He remembered me NOT yelling at him, but just saying something like, “Oh, Johnny.  Please go get the custodian before someone gets cut.” Previously one of his favorite ways to get attention, he said he never tried to jump up again. He just hadn’t thought before of the potential consequences of his actions.

I’d like to believe that teachers don’t think either about what giving a newbie teacher a hard class does. I’d like to believe it isn’t deliberate. But every year, when the tenth day approaches and I know schools in our district will be hiring some teachers to take overloads off of some grade levels, I worry about those teachers coming in and what kind of class they’ll get. I hope they’ll get a fair shake, but I worry they won’t. Why do we do this to our own?  Why do we do this to teachers new to our school or our grade, or our community??

We teachers are our own worst enemies sometimes.

Solid on the How, Struggling with the What

Yesterday I participated in the Reform Symposium as a keynote speaker. I’m not quite sure what distinguished keynoters from presenters, but it was pretty cool presenting virtually and having an audience of over 100 people that participated with questions and comments. Their intereaction in the chat made my ability to share much more powerful and I appreciate every one of you who were there. You have certainly made me think more deeply as I read your comments and questions. Not only did I reflect with you then, but I am continuing to reflect on  the what and why of my work with students’ wikiwork.

I shared the work my kids have done on wikis and blogs and talked about the reflecting I was doing on that, the questions that guide me into a new school year, and the concerns I carry as well. I celebrated what my kids have done, as they far surpassed anything I could have imagined as we began. Some of their wikis are creative, some are creative acts of curation and all model communication in some way. All of them are connected.  All of them are personal. All of them contain passion and work worth doing.

Yet I’m NOT satisfied with what we’ve done and I am struggling with how to set it up this year to help students rigorously pursue inquiry. I am constantly thinking about how to help them work and worry and struggle with complex content that stretches them and causes more questions and more inquiry.

Having worked with wikis for three years now, in both structured and unstructured ways, I have seen students show passion around the projects they design.  I have seen intricate projects and ones with little depth. I have seen collections of pictures, or videos, or games, or game codes, but little curation going into those collections.  I have seen some collaboration, but much more parallel play online–the collaboration often happens in my classroom as they collect and post. I have certainly worked with them on the technology and understand the pedagogy of using technology, but something, in my opinion, is still missing in how they work with their wikis. It’s NOT just the issue of parallel play versus collaboration as I spoke to over a year ago.

I know they haven’t collaborated outside of our school much with other kids. When I have set them up to participate in online projects, though, it has only been parallel play, and not true collaboration. I decided to back up– back into my school to work on collaboration there first. I was thinking of Ryan Bretag’s comment in the parallel play post about pedagogy, about kids needing to be taught collaboration skills. So, I watched, prodded and led this year to help kids learn a TON about online courtesy and communication. They learned how to allow others to work in their space and be diligent about the need to monitor it. They learned to ask questions others would be interested in answering on their polls as they became more aware of their audience. There was a tremendous sense of serious play, feelings of power over their content, and a sincere belief that people would read what they wrote as they found their voice and developed niches for themselves–or struggled to do so. I aiding in building their readership by tweeting out links to their wikis, by inviting my colleagues into their conversations, and by blogging about their insights and incredible creativity and commitment to the work.

Are these pre-collaboration skills? Because I work with elementary students, is part of my quandary because my kids need experiences with collaborative activities and they need ways of understanding global connections and audiences??

As I begin to plan for this next school year, I am struggling with my learning objectives for getting kids to work with wikis.  Our county has a goal that we will “prepare all students to succeed as members of a global community and in a global economy.” I am attempting to do that by enlarging their view of the world. I am attempting to do that by helping them learn about publishing in a global community.  I am attempting to do that by helping them become aware of digital citizenship and their digital footprint. So, is letting them have pretty free rein over the content on their wikis okay, or enough, or should I be tying it more to the designated content for their grade level?  Your thoughts?

Trusting, But Less Naive…and Looking For Help

I used twitcleaner.com last week.  Twitcleaner is a Twitter app intended ot help you manage the people you follow, so you can weed out inactive ones.  I found some interesting patterns–the ones in my list either had been inactive since may or last November.  The puzzle-solver in me wants to know why, so I dug a bit deeper to try to figure it out.  My hypothesis is that the November people were either:

*ones who had just joined and perhaps didn’t tweet past the class where they were encouraged to sign up–or

*they were hacked and they gave up after that happened.

The “May Twitter quitters” I figured just might have been taking a break near the end of school, or had taken off for the summer. I found one that was a surprise, though, even though I hadn’t noticed the Twitter absence because I haven’t had time to be on Twitter much the past few months. Knowing a co-worker, I wrote that person and asked if the Twitterer was okay.  Turns out s/he’s not and I found out something I wish I hadn’t. It’s made me very sad.

The week or so before, Scott McLeod had written a post called, Can you ever really know that edublogger beside you? Turns out Steven Anderson was also writing about the same topic: Social Media and Relationships The comments both places are interesting, and could easily be seen as depicting personalities. How people express themselves and what they say shows their personality, and lets us get to know them better, right? I know I certainly feel like I express myself honestly and put myself “out there” in many ways on my blog and in interactions on Twitter and other social networking sites. However, people can say anything on the web, and we can only know whether it is the truth through extended and repeated interactions with that person, right?

I don’t know that anymore. I know I have unfollowed people I’d like to learn from because of their language, because I DO read Twitter at school, and I don’t want curse words on my screen. I am sad this person was so obnoxious in their actions I had to not only unfollow, but block them. I had interacted regularly with this person.  I had met this person at NECC 09.  I had even had a drink with this person. But I didn’t really know this person, and that’s the point Scott makes in his blog.  That’s the point several commenters on his blog make as they ask if we ever really know anyone. How many times have husbands surprised wives (or vice versa) with some habit or behavior the other knew nothing about or we’ve found out something about a neighbor or friend that completely shocked us? I’m from a small town where everyone knows everyone else.  I’ve had very little personal experience with scandal or distrustful situations or incredibly obnoxious behavior–whether it involves drinking or not. I am incredibly naive…though less naive than last week.

I agree with many of the comments on Scott’s blog where people say they are choosing to be trusting. I am, and I will continue to do that with educators whom I meet online. I do think we should heed the warning here, on Wes Fryer’s Blog via Beth Still, though.

However, I have been really “out there” with my elementary kids. I haven’t hesitated to ask educators in my PLN to interact with my students on their wikis–and I have let educators join their wikis to interact with them. I am REALLY rethinking that practice… and how to set up situations to allow my teacher Twitter buddies to give my kids feedback–or respond to their polls–in ways that don’t quite open up my kids so widely to other possibilities like the potential for private interactions with adults, or older students. I’m thinking a Twitter account might serve that purpose. I’m thinking a conversation with Adam Frey (co-founder of wikispaces) is possibly in order to ask if moderated comments could somehow be allowed. I understand wikis are about collaboration, but when asking for responses or help from strangers, there has to be a way to do that safely for my students.

So, as I think about next year and setting up my kids for understanding global connections, share with me how you let them pursue their passions and create their own stuff on the web, AND interact with the world?  I’m not looking for structured projects between classes–I do that, and encourage the kid to kid  and teacher to teacher interaction.  I’m looking for ways to let my kids receive feedback from anyone on their personal creations, but not be able to then turn to a private space for interacting. Suggestions?

A Challenge to ACT (and be your best!)

I have two weeks off this summer and this is the second day of the first week. Yesterday I stayed plugged in all day to Edubloggercon East, listening, learning and interacting and today I plan to produce. I want to blog, I want to move and I want to do something other than look at a computer.

It’s a busy week for me to have off–the Discovery Education Network Leadership Council is meeting near Boston. The Building Learning Communities Conference is happening in Boston. Both are gatherings where  many people I know will be sharing, tweeting, streaming and I can be learning much of the time. There are many other conferences going on as well that people in my PLN are sharing and tweeting about daily. It’s a GREAT week for me to have few personal obligations.

So this morning, Steve Dembo, @teach42, quoted Chris Dede as saying: The biggest challenge for educators is to reinvent the educational system of the 21st century. – Dede #denlc10

Then, Mary Beth Hertz, @mbteach, responded with: not sure we need to reinvent anything. Some things ARE working! We just need an upgrade.

Yesterday in an Edubloggercon East (#ebce10) session, there was a conversation about Rethinking/Renaming 21st Century Education.

I’ve been reading and blogging on the Cooperative Catalyst blog for months, and recently, I’ve read Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology and Seth Godin’s Linchpin. I’ve watched people at ISTE10 and on #edchat call for action, not words, any more.  People are saying it’s time to act and stop talking about acting. However, agreement about what specific actions to take seems to be lacking–or seems, at least, NOT to be pervasive.

Well, let me suggest some specific actions we should all take in all of our schools.

1. I don’t think changing schooling is about an upgrade, or about what IS already working, or even about reinventing, reforming or transforming. The big thing everyone seems to agree about right now is that schooling does not equal learning and what we’re doing in most schools today does not meet the needs of today’s learners or today’s world.

We have to agree on what kind of learning is important for our students and for us and act on that! Learning for life is not rote, but about deep understanding and questioning through inquiry, analysis and reflection. It’s about building habits of mind that allow and support learners to transfer learning across disciplines and situations to be adaptive and creative in complex situations. Deep learning occurs NOT in a vacuum, but socially, with others, so teamwork, collaboration, leadership and people skills are crucial to develop.

So, if what we want is learning that builds skills that transfer to new situations, we simply have to examine HOW we support learning for our students.  Doesn’t matter where that support happens, or when that support happens, but HOW it happens.

2. Seth Godin talks about two kinds of schooling:

Type 1. You can take a class where you learn technique, facts and procedures.

Type 2. You can take a class where you learn to see, learn to lead and learn to solve interesting problems.

The fact of the matter is that we’re always going to need some type of school and school building for young students. Early childhood is crucial for setting the stage for later learning, since it’s generally  in grades k-3 that students learn the basics–reading, writing, mathematical thinking and socialization skills. Once they have developed some building blocks of those how-tos, and a questioning frame of mind, then

We need to figure out how to provide our learners the second kind of schooling as much as we can, and act on that, strategically providing our students multiple opportunities in a group to figure out a problem, struggle to solve the problem and mess around with complex issues and make sense of  and offer solutions or changes to them.

Here’s where it gets tricky in my mind, as allowing students to do that does not look orderly, and often looks like chaos. It’s messy, it’s riddled with failures (cause that’s what we learn most from) and it does NOT look like a teacher standing lecturing in front of a room full of students.Thus, administrators have to understand what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how to help us get better at it through THEIR supporting OUR learning. Again, inquiry, analysis and reflection is important to any learning–including all of the adults!

3. The daily work students do must be engaging, involving the 8 engaging qualities of work described here: Teachers as Taskmasters

Like the title of that blog post, I say teachers must be MASTERS of task-making. I do not mean in the traditional sense of the word, as in making sure the work gets done, but as in MASTERFULLY crafting tasks. These tasks should be ones that engage, teach, allow for diversity of thought, stimulate creative juices flowing, and evoke a proud sense of accomplishment. They may even take on a life of their own, resulting in students taking the task to places the teacher may never have envisioned. Through rich tasks that demand rigor in thought and performance, that elicit cooperation and teamwork, students may also discover a passion for the subject or the discipline as well.

We need to observe carefully what students do in multifaceted and difficult situations and have deep understanding of their work and act on that to help them develop strategies for knowing what to do when they don’t have an immediate solution.

This ties in with the “struggle to solve the problem” in suggestion #2. David Berliner, who has done tons of research on “experts” talks about expert learners “knowing what to do when they don’t know what to do.” So, as we teach and support our students learning to find and solve problems, we also need to carefully observe what they do to help them make connections to multiple modes of strategic thinking, critical friends, and knowledgeable others who can help them get beyond a temporary stalemate. We also need to understand our content, knowing how to scaffold students for deeper understanding and next steps in specific processes.

4. It’s not just about OUR analysis of the quality of the work, but the students’ command of their depth of understanding as well. THEY are the ones who need to be able to explain their understanding, comprehend how much they know and don’t know, and be able to describe next steps for their own path.  It’s about students understanding that the questions many times are much more important than the answer and that the process we follow to get to where we do is usually much more informative than the answer.

We need to act to do rich, sophisticated assessment that clearly matches our  objectives, gives specific, timely and regular feedback on both student work and student learning, and provides rich descriptions and analyses of that work and learning that others (admins, parents, other students, etc.) understand.

When we report to parents, we simply have to practice 3-P reporting, where we share, and students self-report on

*Performance (based on criteria and performance standards)
*Progress (progress/improvement)
*Process (work habits, effort, attitude)

(See Grade Fog? Or Effective Grading?)

You know what?  The four specific actions (green sentences) I suggest aren’t new ideas. I’d bet Aristotle, or Plato, or even Thomas Jefferson, would all agree they are simply good education–or good “schooling.” I’d bet many of you learned them in your preservice classes, or in the freefall of your first few years of teaching.  What’s different is the hamstringing NCLB has done to us, what the state multiple choice tests have done to us, and the fear to which we have succumbed to NOT do what we know is best, and what’s been in many of our hearts all along. What’s different is the tools we have to do these things, and the ways we can manage them. So my challenge to you is simply this–let’s all go act on these four things and use all of the sophisticated tools we have at our disposal to do so. Let’s teach our students, interacting with them and all of our peers with all of our heart and soul and with every ounce of knowledge, art and craft we have to provide rich, incredibly engaging, and amazing learning opportunities for them. Let’s share what we do, (any ideas how or where?) and show the world we really don’t need those multiple choice tests to document our students’ learning and provide them the experiences they need to save our world from the mess we’ve made for them.

And, for a related post I wrote in May, go here.

Teaching in a Silo 2

I just got this on email:

After I read your post on teaching in a silo I got {this poem} out and thought I’d share it with you.

“Oh, the comfort,
the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person,
having neither to weigh thoughts or measure words
but pouring them all right out,
just as the are, chaff and grain together;
certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them,
keep what is worth keeping
and then with the breath of kindness throw the rest away.”

I am so very blessed.  Thank you, friend.

Teaching In A Silo

This sentence was in my last paragraph in my timeline blog @ http://coopcatalyst.wordpress.com/2010/05/12/epiphanies/.
Leading and learning with the adults that surround your kids is just as important as leading and learning daily with your students. Teaching in a silo-especially when you are good at it–is like living in a well, deep and cold.
I can’t point to one thing in my teaching career, because I have been building a PLN my whole career. My PLN spans the globe right now,b ut ever when it was just in a building, that sentence is true–leading and learning with the adults is JUST as important as doing it with your students.
The experience of writing on the Cooperative Catalyst blog, and the power of building and being a member of a PLN outside of my building, my county, my state, and even my nation has made me look not only at my own practice differently, but also my own life.  I am more committed than ever to teaching adults as I do my students–with all of my heart and in ways that impact upon their hearts

Again, I’m working smarter, not harder and using this post as an assignment in the course I am taking.  Our job is to: Consider one timeline event that falls within your teaching career.  Why did you include this event in your timeline? How did this event impact your teaching?

So, looking back at my timeline blog, this sentence was in my last paragraph  @ 5 Decades, 6 Schools,  and 1 Dedicated Teacher.

Leading and learning with the adults that surround your kids is just as important as leading and learning daily with your students. Teaching in a silo-especially when you are good at it–is like living in a well, deep and cold.

I have spent much of my career thinking about teaching in a silo.  I have spent much of it thinking about making connections across classrooms, grades, schools, localities and even the world.  I have been building a PLN my whole career, and my PLN and the connections I have through it are a critical and crucial part of my career, I think.  It is with my PLN that I often think deeply, question, learn tons, question, collaborate, question, get new ideas, question, find new resources, share and question. My PLN spans the globe right now, but even when it was just in a building, that sentence is true–leading and learning with the adults is JUST as important as doing it with your students.

I originally included this comment about leading and learning with the adults in my building in my timeline because it is central to who I am as a teacher. However, revisiting it has made me realize there’s another piece to it as well–connections.

Just as kids want to connect to others, wanting to belong, so do adults. In fact, our adult identities are often wrapped up in who we connect with as we grow up.  Our work is often connected to who we connect with at work, because as adults, we STILL want to belong–we want to be accepted, liked and honored for who we are, and we want to interact with people who help us be better people.

The experience of writing on the Cooperative Catalyst blog, and the power of building and being a member of a PLN outside of my building, my county, my state, and even my nation has made me look not only at my own practice differently, but also my own life.  I am more committed than ever to teaching adults as I do my students–with all of my heart and in ways that impact upon their hearts.

I learned a long time ago to stay out of the gossip mill in the school–so I am often the last to hear of news anywhere–kids moving, people having babies or getting married, teachers transferring or switching grades, etc.

I learned a long time ago to be careful about being too bullheaded and ticking people off, because you never know when you’ll change schools and that person may be there, too, in a different position where your past behavior may come back at you in a not-so-pleasant way.

I learned a long time ago that parents talk among themselves and even when they have promised not to share whatever you said, you cannot count on that, so don’t.

I learned a long time ago that if you try to stay in your silo, that isolation backfires on you, EVERY time.

So, if you don’t gossip, you’re not interested in making your school colleagues your out-of-school friends, and you don’t belong to a team per se, how do you NOT live in that silo?

You lead and learn with the adults. You try to connect in many ways, keeping in mind that the personal connections are always the most powerful. You support them every way you can and you always, always be nice. One thing  to remember, as a resource teacher, in dealing with a staff is that their personal lives are the most important thing to them–so always, always, make that your most important thing with them as well. Realize that you may be concerned about the schedule, but if their kid is sick, they won’t care about your schedule. If you call them with a question when they are lining their kids up, they can’t think about it. And, if you want to have a deep conversation that includes theory or research, perhaps it’s best  to make an appointment.

The people I most connect with most easily and most deeply are really intense people who think a lot. Those are the kind of people with whom I do my best leading and learning. They’re mostly teachers, as that’s who I am.  I have lived most of my life in a classroom (as both a student and teacher) and while I LOVE interacting with my students, they move on–they grow up, go to other teachers, move on in their lives, as well they should. I have changed schools before simply because I didn’t have a connection with other adults. . .and I move to schools where I know the principal will “get” me–an intense, smart person who has high expectations for myself and everyone around me.

I’ve loved the years I’ve had someone in my building that really understands gifted education, who really asks hard questions, who doesn’t mind struggling in ambiguity for a while before coming to clarity in determining conceptual ideas or essential questions or planning big units.  Those people are rare. But those conversations rejuvenate me, they stimulate me and they help me grow. That having a critical friend, one who has unconditional support while also modeling unconditional critique is unparalleled in helping a person grow.  I’ve felt very blessed when I’ve had that experience.

Just as kids need like-minded and appropriate peers, so do teachers. I’ve only had a couple of times I had a person in my building who really enjoyed intense conversations about theory and practice as much as I do. (I can’t even imagine what I’d be like if I’d had that most of my career.) I’ve often wondered if that’s why so many of our bright young teachers leave–no appropriate peers to make school a thinking, stimulating place to come each day.

I’m a big kid now, and while I’m involved in some great online conversations that completely challenge me at times, I still need a thought-provoking friend in my building. I’m actually feeling like my kids right now–I’m wishing schools would take into account providing that critical friend for all kinds of teachers, too, so that none of us would even be tempted to teach in a silo. Just as we carefully place kids in classrooms each summer, so should we place teachers to be their best–and that may mean clustering,  just as research shows works with our kids. As I make my recommendations for class placements, I think about silos–and not creating them for kids in a classroom. I wish people doing the adult hiring for schools could do the same.

(update: July 18, 2010–a blogger who wrote about similar needs:  Dynamic Reflection)

Kids Know What Matters

We’re placing kids in classrooms for next year right now. It’s a process gone through in multiple schools and classrooms in America in multiple ways. I hate this process, every June, for this reason: Gifted kids need to be placed carefully, based on researched needs, and most teachers not only don’t know this research, but they also don’t pay attention to those who do. EVERY year, I am asked by my principal to make recommendations about gifted kids’ placements.  EVERY year my principal tells the teachers in my buildings to listen to my recommendations or talk to me about why. EVERY year, I can count on several grades to ignore whatever I suggest–and then the next school year, I get to deal with parent and kid nervousness about having no friends in the classroom, or not being with an appropriate group of thinkers, or not being with the math group they were with the year before, or… you get the picture.

We deal with these social emotional needs in a variety of ways. . . sometimes we switch classes for the kids, sometimes it’s a matter of alerting the teacher and supporting her/him as s/he attempts to help the child make new friends and sometimes the child actually ends up going to a private school. My question is why not avoid this grief in the first place?

There are certain kids who simply need a different approach because they think differently. (I would argue there are many more than we acknowledge, but some are resilient enough to put up with the crap we call school.)

I recently got a thank you note from one of my kids. (I’ve cleaned up the misspellings.)

Dear Ms. White

Thank you for a great year. I appreciate every thing that you did for me and I hope that we can see each other next year. Thank you for helping me with my wiki and helping me with Spinc Industreys. You have really helped make my company known. Thank you for being a great teacher for me. You are the only teacher I have had that understands the message that I am trying to give. Thank you for letting me come over for lunch and recess with my friend Alex. Thank you for ideas for my website and other things like programs. You have helped me do lots of things by helping me along the way.

Thank you for answering the questions that I had and helping me think of new questions. Thank you for taking me to things like meetings. Thank you for telling me what’s going on so that I know what’s happening and not treating me like a normal student, instead you talk about things that a normal homeroom teacher wouldn’t.

I like that you talk about other things besides just one thing like most teachers do. You talk about the oil spill and you relate math with it and make things more fun than some teacher would have made them. Instead of giving us worksheets you let us do it on our iPods.  You also let us understand things about SOLs so that we know what’s going to happen instead of normal teachers that just give you the test and you do not know what is going to be in the test.

I like that you are not strict about websites and let us go to youtube and other things like that. You are a teacher that can trust me and other students. You are good at making a first impression also, when I first went into your class I thought all the work was going to be hard but when I walked in we were all setting up websites and telling us about what the year ahead of us is going to be like, I think that is a good way of making a first impression.

Thank you for making this year the best year of my life.

Three sentences stand out to me:

  1. Thank you for being a great teacher for me.
  2. You are the only teacher I have had that understands the message that I am trying to give.
  3. Thank you for making this year the best year of my life.

I just pray that he gets a teacher next year in middle school that can let him soar as he did this year. I just pray he can make the connections he so desperately seeks and so desperately needs.

The fact is, some kids NEED a certain kind of teacher, and they need a peer group that will accept them. They think so differently they often have-shall I say–reduced social skills.  They don’t know HOW to make those connections for themselves. They don’t know how to NOT be brilliant in every conversation. They don’t know HOW to turn off that active brain. They don’t know HOW to inhibit the reactions (eye rolls, sighs, faces) they have when someone says something they KNOW to be wrong. Other kids see them as “weird” or “strange” or “not smart” because they don’t act like “normal” kids do–so they are often ostracized, which makes their need to be accepted even more crucial.

They need a teacher who can coach them in those skills AND accept them for who they are. They need a teacher who can help the other kids see their strengths and what they have to offer the community. The kid who wrote that letter was lucky this year–he had a classroom teacher who liked and honored him and he had me. Between the two of us, he went from being on the outskirts socially to being accepted as one of the smartest kids in the class who could teach other kids how to create web sites. He was the originator of the boy’s group who came to my room every day for recess and lunch to geek out–and the group grew throughout the year. He became a leader, partially because his classroom teacher empowered and honored him and partially because I did. It was a great fit and he made some good friends this year.

So why do teachers ignore my suggestions? Do they not recognize the need for these “odd ducks” to be able to blossom into beautiful swans? Do they not understand the social issues that surround being a really smart kid in schools and the need to have other smart kids you connect to with you?

I just wish teachers would ask the kids sometimes.  They can tell you how important it is to have at least one connection in a classroom. They can tell you how left out they feel sometimes.

So here’s another note I got:

I searched {for my wiki} in google, and found many of my pages not just on twitter, but on blogs, etc.. When I got my wiki, i never expected it to become this popular. I have to catch up on some reviews, but just wanted to say thanks for being a great teacher this year, and for making my wiki well known.
Then, I got this one a day or so later form the same kid:
subject: Apple releases
the iphone 4, and I think the next step for them is to put those features on the ipad (maybe not all of them). Check out this link for more: http://www.apple.com/iphone/?sr=hotnews.rss I just wanted you to know that, and that you are the best teacher I ever had. 🙂
So I wrote back:
I’m curious—best because I taught you, or best because I let you learn?   🙂
and he responded:
Best, because you let me learn what I want to learn. I really enjoyed that,and wish that schools would do that, too Best, because you let me learn what I want to learn. I really enjoyed that,
and wish that schools would do that, too

I searched {for my wiki} in google, and found many of my pages not just on twitter, but on blogs, etc.. When I got my wiki, i never expected it to become this popular. I have to catch up on some reviews, but just wanted to say thanks for being a great teacher this year, and for making my wiki well known.

Then, I got this one a day or so later from the same kid:

subject: Apple releases

the iphone 4, and I think the next step for them is to put those features on the ipad (maybe not all of them). Check out this link for more:http://www.apple.com/iphone/?sr=hotnews.rss I just wanted you to know that, and that you are the best teacher I ever had. 🙂

So I wrote back:

I’m curious—best because I taught you, or best because I let you learn?   🙂

and he responded:

Best, because you let me learn what I want to learn. I really enjoyed that, and wish that schools would do that, too.

Dang, why don’t we let ALL kids connect deeply and learn things THEY are passionate about more often??  Why don’t we show that we understand it’s the HUMAN connections that are powerful. . .and that make kids remember things. They may not, as the saying goes, remember the content I taught, but they WILL remember how I made them feel.

20 Year Old Dinosaurs

When I taught kindergarten, I had a unit about dinosaurs. Young children are fascinated by dinosaurs.  I don’t know if it’s the “monster” connection, or the big words, or the idea of an animal being so huge, or living before men were on earth, or what, but the fact is that all children sit quietly for dinosaur books (well-written dinosaur books well read) and all kids LOVE exploring them–all facets, from their size to their names. Once I discovered this, and I tried teaching a unit on dinosaurs, it became one of my favorites–and one of my most powerful–units of study each year.  My units typically lasted anywhere from a week to three or four, depending on the complexity of my goals and the interest shown by my students.  This one usually lasted at LEAST four weeks.

First, while it was  a thematic unit, I did have big ideas I was trying to help young children understand–the idea of a LONG time ago, the idea of extinction, the idea of scientific hypotheses and the idea that science understanding is still evolving. The biggest idea I always  tried to convey, though, was that everything is connected. Whether it was a meteorite that hit the earth and caused a climatic disaster that killed the plants and thus the plant eaters so the meat eaters had no food, or “extensive release of volcanic gases, climatic cooling (with related changes in ocean currents and weather patterns), sea-level change, low reproduction rates, poison gases from a comet, or changes in the Earth’s orbit or magnetic field”, what happened in one place affected them ALL. (reference)

We studied word origins–herbivore, carnivore and omnivore as well as triceratops, tricycle, tripod and triangle.  We studied geography as we learned where dinosaurs typically lived and where dinosaur bones have been found.  We learned about reading as we began to recognize the names of common dinosaurs we read about–Tyrannosaurus Rex, Brontosaurus (which we learned was really Apatosaurus, since two different teams of scientists had discovered the same kind of dinosaur in two places, and the team who named it Apatosaurus found it first), Stegosaurus, Triceratops, Pterydactyl, and Pteranodon. We studied life processes as we learned dinosaurs laid eggs and that mothers nurtured their young. We practiced the scientific process and studied cartesian plotting as we dug-CAREFULLY-using toothbrushes and toothpicks, to uncover bones in our sandbox and plotted their findings on our grid. We learned about language and letters and words and writing as we wrote our own dinosaur stories and shared what we were learning in our journals and “words we find interesting”  lists. We learned about “silent letters” as we found the P silent in Pterydactyl and Pteranodon.  We constantly compared and contrasted and sorted as we discussed characteristics that were the same and different among various dinosaurs. We made lists of carnivores–of herbivores–and discovered most of us were omnivores. We learned about cold and warm-blooded animals as we studied their lifestyles and habitats–and that there is somewhat of a controversy as to whether these huge animals were truly lizard-like, (as the word part “saur” indicated) or whether they were more bird-like and descendants of the birds of today. We learned which dino was which through repeated exposure to them in books and movies, as well as the songs we loved from records like “Our Dinosaur Friends.”

(I have been 16 years away from my Kindergarten class–but I can still recite the words to these songs–how do you think I found this album online?)

Triceratops with three long horns, a beak like a parrot and a frill where his neck is. .. .or

My name is Stegosaurus, I’m a funny looking dinosaur.  For on my back are many boney plates, and on my tail there’s more…

and check out the comment on the link–the guy who put this online says he, too, still remembers these lyrics.

We ate, breathed and lived dinosaurs–reading about them, writing about them, playing with them in the block area and on the rug, comparing their sizes and drawing one on the blacktop to get a feel for just how huge these things really were, pretending to be paleontologists as we used hammers and nails (and our trusty toothbrush tools again) to dig bones out of plaster of paris we had made in milk cartons, pretending to be newspaper reporters as we reported on the “discoveries” made in the digging and in our block area. We counted dinosaur manipulatives in math–we measured and compared as we learned about the different sizes of their teeth.  We argued facts we learned in movies like “Land Before Time” against what we learned in our books.  We learned to defend our statements and justify our hypotheses, just as adult workers do.

My students were self-directed in what they chose to work with each day, but they were accountable to the bigger community of our classroom, expected to contribute in class conversations, to be able to state facts and make hypotheses, to defend their statements and justify their thinking. They worked in groups or alone at various times, mostly of their own choosing. They made books together (or sometimes alone) to share their learning or simply to celebrate their newfound knowledge. They brought books from home to add to our classroom collection of knowledge as we learned together. They suggested activities to do during our “work choice time” as they learned from their own studies both in and out of school. They looked for books about dinosaurs in the library and shared news they found (or learned from their parents) from the newspaper or TV news.

My job during this time (and always, I believe) was to support their learning, providing opportunities to expand their thinking (first we dug up bones in the sand table and plotted them, then we dug them out of plaster of paris to portray fossils in rocks), and scaffolding whatever they were working on–whether it be helping them with the letters they needed for the writing they were doing, or finding an appropriate book they might be able to “read” (from the pictures) or finding a source of information for the questions they had.

I did (and do) very little large group lecturing–I put information out there in a provocative way and watch them take off on it to see how to support them and how to guide them as they learn to read, write, and do math and science to make sense of their world. I subtly direct some activities so that they will need skills I know I have to teach them from the mandated curriculum. I marvel other times at how much they already know and strive to keep ahead of them a bit to provide new opportunities to learn. I have time, because they are mostly self-directed and internally driven, to work with individuals or small groups, DIRECTLY on the skills they need at that moment in time. I indeed spent most of my “time traveling from student to student to help individuals with individual problems” or challenging them to go beyond what they were already doing.

So, while I was doing this over 20 years ago (thus the title of the blog), isn’t this 21st century teaching, if there is such a thing?  Isn’t this just GOOD TEACHING? And, doesn’t it “support peace and democracy? Ecological integrity? Economic justice? Beauty?” (Okay, maybe NOT beauty or economic justice…)

The idea for this post came from the Cooperative Catalyst Blog Comments on a post I did there.

What a Hullabaloo!

Recently I posted this to the Cooperative Catalyst Blog, where I find myself blogging more often these days–I have no time to do both right here at the end of the school year. It generated a ton more conversation and controversy than I ever would have possibly envisioned.  See the comments at Joy in Standardized Tests.

Much of the conversation in response to this weeks’ blog posts has centered around joy in learning and joy in school. Here’s my story of this past week.

I am my school’s testing coordinator.  This is my first year doing it and we are doing all of our state tests online.  I am coordinating 10 tests–4 for 3rd and 5th grade and 2 for fourth grade. I decided we were going to take  them in ways that MADE SENSE and that took as little time as possible. I decided I wasn’t going to scare teachers to death about talking to kids, answering questions and supporting them. (Our central office coordinator has good sense–she told us early that what the state requires is that every child has the opportunity to “test well” in an environment that supports that and that folks don’t cheat.  I repeated that to my teachers and told them I trusted them to follow the rules they already know from past years–they are all experienced at this state testing rigamarole!)  I was NOT going to model this testing as a “do or die” situation.  I was going to be calm and assure kids they were going to be fine.

I set up a schedule and approved it with teachers, so they had control and some time to work on the subjects over which they felt less secure.  We started with subjects with which the kids would feel really successful. If kids hadn’t been taking tests in small groups all year, we didn’t set up those artificial situations this time.  Most kids are taking the tests in the lab with their class, as they have been working all year.

I started several weeks ago telling kids about brain gym exercises they could do, sharing success stories from my own experiences. I gave them strategies for relaxing, for narrowing down choices on a multiple choice test, and answered their questions as to what would happen if they didn’t pass. I kept reassuring them this test was simply for the state to let them show what they knew, so it wasn’t going to decide their classes next year, or whether they would “pass their grade.”  I work with kids in all grades 3-5, so I know what I was telling the kids I work with was spreading among most of the kids in those tested grades.

I shared with kids a story of last year.  I was proctoring in a 3rd grade online testing situation, and the computers went down. The teacher and I made eye contact–not knowing how long we’d have to stall. The testing coordinator came in and calmly told us they would get the computers back up as soon as possible and we just needed to be patient. So, knowing we couldn’t let the kids talk to each other, or leave the room as a group, I started teaching them brain exercises–a couple of tricks I had learned form a great PE teacher, Pam Walker. We spent a few minute doing these, with me talking about how it calms them down, gets their brain working to the max, and within a few minutes, the computers were ready for them to log back in and continue.  Those kids did GREAT on that test, and kids heard me when I told them these exercises really work!

(This year, when that teacher came to the lab with her kids, she handed me a copy of some brain gym exercises she had gotten from the web.  Knowing she wouldn’t have me in there this year, she came prepared to do her own version of pumping up those kids with brain gym work!)

So, I’ve had the joy each day of testing to see each child go into the labs, to smile at them to tell them how great I know they are going to do, and I have been the one, in the middle of the test, when they ask to take a break or get a drink of water, or go to the bathroom, to be able to smile at them and say how proud I am of them for being such a good learner, or how well I just know they are going to do, or how smart I know they are.  I get to touch their shoulder and give them a friendly “You can do it” smile. I get to reassure them someone believes in them and  I see their taller stance as they re-enter the testing room. I get to be another person (besides their teacher) who says in many ways, “I believe in you.”

It’s been an awesome week.  I have felt so great being able to pump kids up and see their smiles as they re-enter a testing room.  Teachers AND kids are talking about how they are not feeling the stress this year as in years past.  Our scores are coming back and they are good–we have LOTS of advanced passes, and high pass rates.

Are our scores perfect?  No.  Do we still have work to do?  Yes. But, kids and teachers are saying it doesn’t feel like they are taking an SOL test. They have had practice doing this, they know their stuff, and they are doing it in familiar surroundings with knowledge and comfort.

Kids are smiling and feeling okay about their testing. Teachers are feeling proud of their work this year, as their kids ARE showing what they know. Our tech folks have done a GREAT job setting this up for success and tech glitches have been few and far between.  One of them sits with me each day to support me, just in case, and those folks, too, smile at the kids and ooze calmness.

Do I think multiple choice tests are the best way for kids to show what they know?  Of course not.  Do I think they need to take over our lives?  Of course not.  Do I think they can be one piece of what we do?  Sure. Do I think kids can handle them?  Of course–it all depends on the adults around them.

While this may sound like it’s all about what I do with the kids, it’s really all of my teachers–they model belief in their kids.  They teach well.  They work hard all year and reward hard work in their classrooms.  They are simply reaping the rewards of their dedication and care. . .and I get  to help!

I have had fun this past week helping teachers be calm and helping kids be calm. I have had several kids walk out of the testing room to go to the bathroom and give ME a thumbs up sign!

And I’m not kidding, I have seen MOST kids smile beginning the test AND ending it.

Joy is often in how you approach a task.

Why Don’t Schools Have Innovation As An Expectation?

Dear God,

I love my PLN. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to learn from some of the smartest people I could ever imagine (besides my brother, Rod, and my friend Becky, of course).  And thank you for helping me be smart enough to follow the links all of these smart people tweet and read the stuff they write.


The other morning I saw Mike Gras‘ tweet:  Coffee

I think he does this every day–but I’m not up that early and on Twitter every day to know for sure.  I just know that when I see it, a part of me feels like I’m watching a friend settle in to “hatch” with his coffee. You see, I know Mike drinks coffee and he tweets it as he’s joining the Twitterverse. I also know he’s a hunter and he taught me what a wild boar looks like about a year ago.  I know he still hunts the darn things and that I had no idea you could still do something like that in Texas-or even in the United States! He’s got great hunting stories to tell and he’s shared some of them online. He loves to grill/barbeque/smoke meat and sometimes shows pictures of what he has cooked or what he has found in a restaurant.  He also enjoys sharing good food finds with friends.

Mike is also modest.  He tweets things like: “It’s a funny world. So much of what I do I owe to bloggers that know little of their impact.” How true that is for all of us, I think.  Tonight someone tweeted a link to something Mike wrote. I clicked on it and found this gem from him:

One of Wikipedia’s definitions is “Innovation – a change in the thought process for doing something…” If  that is not done daily in the world of techies, I don’t know techies. Notice the definition does not include arguments for good or evil. That is up to the individuals involved. But the converse of that change is also true as it is instinctual in technology to solve a problem by jumping on a Web site and seeing what others have done. Ten years ago, this was copying. Now that same behavior has standing as “the integration of innovation.” The copier is the innovator. Something feels quite unnatural about that conclusion, but it is the way it is. What reputation I’ve gained as an innovator has been acquired by doing nothing more than presenting an environment where the classroom innovators can find expression for their own innovations and that of the charges they are to educate.

Not only does Mike abdicate any responsibility for the amazing things happening in his district, but he also gives others credit for his reputation. As I said, he’s modest. And Mike, here’s a blog that I hope tells you what an impact YOUR writing has on at least one other. Thanks for sharing your thoughts online!

“Innovation – a change in the thought process for doing something…”  A change in the THOUGHT PROCESS…

Recently I’ve been retweeting Scott Mcleod’s comment, “Our mental models are the biggest barrier to moving schools forward into a digital, global era.” Then I read Mike’s “the copier is the innovator” and that behavior is “the integration of innovation”.

I think back to when our county held monthly conversations among early childhood teachers and how that changed the daily practice in many classrooms. I remember when our central office folks organized visits between classrooms and then facilitated conversations among the observed and the observers to talk about the craft of teaching. I remember that many times what someone said triggered a thought in me that changed what I did the very next day. I remember learning from the genius of the and.

Innovation as a change in the thought process…

Where does creation fall into innovation and into our schools and classrooms? When are we to implement innovative practices and beliefs?  Where do we get the opportunities to talk to others and share ideas and thoughts that could lead to that “copying” and innovative thoughts/actions?

Teaching IS an isolated activity for many. Even when one is active online, the day is filled with isolationist practices. . . working with children gives a teacher no time to engage with colleagues around practices of any kind, much less time for the deep conversations that innovative practices would generate. There’s simply no time to talk about the craft of teaching.

Michael Josefowicz tweeted me last night and  suggested, “Suppose school districts allowed the great teachers to train…David Berliner says, in his work on levels of expertise, that the most expert practitioners are often NOT the best teachers of the craft, as they do many things intuitively and so can’t explain or describe why they do certain things.

The fact of the matter is that we KNOW what works for learners to learn. We know what behaviors of teachers work for learners to learn. Teaching is a craft, it is an art, it is a science.  So why, simply, don’t we do those things in the classrooms?  Why do we teach to low level multiple choice tests?  Why do we organize our classrooms around learning simple factoids that rely on memory alone?  Why do we watch group after group of students leave our classroom with no passion for learning and no care, pride or joy in the work they do in school?

Is it because we have no mental models for innovative ways to teach and learn?  Is it because we are so resistant to change that we can’t imagine any other way than what we have always done?  Is it because it is hard work and that takes more time than we have to give? Why is it that we don’t follow our hearts, our intuition and our philosophical beliefs in our classrooms and treat our learners and our own learning with respect, sharing autonomy and collaboration, continuity and change, conservatism and progressiveness, stability and revolution, predictability and chaos, heritage and renewal, fundamentals and craziness. (The green words are Jim Collins’.)

Why don’t we, as Jim Collins says, “Preserve the core and stimulate progress”–because we DO know how to teach. We just often get caught up in NOT teaching well, but teaching to the low level multiple choice tests. Our kids deserve the best we have to offer them, so why do we get caught up in other stuff?  Why do we not, as Mike Gras says, “present an environment where the classroom innovators can find expression for their own innovations?”

Michael Gras serves as technology coordinator for White Oak ISD in Texas.