Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Sailing Together This Year!

 Tobias Wenkemann:
                                  WHICH WAY WILL YOUR SHIP SAIL THIS YEAR?

Yesterday, I had the good fortune of spending the day with a group of my colleagues from Teacher's College in a school district working with the Writing Units of Study, and really contemplating this question together with them. It gave me time to pause and think back about all the new beginnings I faced in my many years with kids.

The teaching of reading and writing, by today's standards, is no small, boring pursuit. Kids love to work in an active engagement model, where the teacher talks less and less, and they are called to do the work that's asked of them. This is, truly, why I love this model. But for those small moments of teacher talk, and then the well-planned conferences that follow--there's a ton of preparation that has to take place behind the scenes.

Teaching is hard work. Learning should be hard work too.

So this year, with the kick-off of a new year, a new horizon...and a new chance to set sail, I'm looking forward to watching teachers working together, supporting one another, and being well supported by the communities that they serve. Because despite the insane narrative that's been created by large corporations and political machines out there...I know, my colleagues, past and present know what they're doing when they're at the helm. But in order to move this huge cargo ship, they've got to toss out the old, welcome the new, and they need to know that we all support them, as they row together to get the job done once more!

Teaching is the greatest profession on earth! And all of us, the community of parents, taxpayers, legislators especially...need to 'get it' and buy in! We are, after all, in this together. And as our Newtown Superintendent, Dr. Erardi stated so eloquently at his kick-off, "You're worst day is our worst day too! We are all in behind you!" All in...his message both on paper and practice.

Are you all in behind your teachers in your community? What have you done to make this evident to them?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Fetch that Data, Spot!

Pendulums in education come and go...they truly do. But when you're in the thick of another maelstrom of over-testing, data collecting, and doting on curricula over student needs, it doesn't always feel that way.

Somewhere out there, not too long ago, a narrative began about teachers and teaching. And despite the best efforts out there, the voices of today's educational prodigy are not being heard. Well of course. What do they know? Seriously. What do they know? They are, like I was long ago, wet behind the ears. They're so happy to have a job that they learn to conform, compete, and appear to be on the right track. Succumb. That's what we do. We are, after all, the lambs. Especially those of us who come up the ranks through elementary educating. You can't make waves; you don't have the time or energy to do so.

But the narrative that has been born right under our noses is this: there are bad teachers out there, and worse yet, students are suffering. I do think this is an over-dramatization of the many, like me, who did suffer through a year or perhaps two of strict teachers. Yes, they did have the finesse of a large tank, and yes, they didn't understand me. They taught whole group, and if you didn't understand how to conform, you were in trouble. But today, our approach to learning is different. We've learned more.
And despite the incredible efforts of a LARGE majority of incredibly dynamic teachers out there, it becomes all about the old narrative.

Today, we test to predict who's using the best available practices in the classroom. We test to track students over time against the teachers who have taught them. We test at the beginning of the year, despite the fact that we have last year's numbers. We test mid-year to track the data from fall to winter. We then have the states tests, which are aligned with the standards, and then we test at the end of the year too. Fatigued? You're not the only one.

Students, drawn from their classrooms to sit in front of the blue screen, are separated from the depth and breath of a rigorous investigative curriculum. They, like us, are lambs. They have no choice and neither do we.

Don't misunderstand me, I'm not suggesting there be no accountability. I get that. But, the common sense of the matter is this...good administrators can get a good sense of a classroom dynamic and the teacher that's facilitating it, in about ten minutes' time. Administration these days have a great deal on their plates, though. With the constant stream of meetings, emails and parent calls...often their hands are tied. It's hard for them to poke their noses out of the office. But, I do think, if fidelity in observation were placed high on their evaluation, and the tests were all but eliminated, with the exception of the States' test at the end of the year? We'd all see a whole new horizon.

I say, swing the doors wide, let's all roll up our that deep investigative, creative classroom of our dreams. Yes, we can match it to the standards, and no it's not the standards that tie our hands. Let's all get our heads together and change that political narrative. And for once, listen to the people who are actually the true experts on learning, the advocates for kids: the teachers. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

How Much Is that Doggie in the Window?

At what cost do we suffer through these first dark weeks of school? Yes, we do love seeing all these new faces in the classroom, and c' can't say you don't love that little girl that leaps out of line to give you a hug! But physically and emotionally, how are you taking care of yourself. Teaching is a grueling job...well, but there are those summers off, right?

I sat across from a new teacher the other day in a meeting, an intern who's currently working on a thesis and trying to teach as well. She's also holding down a job nights to pay for her education. Oh boy, those were the days! And she said to me, "I had no idea it could be this hard!"

Well, for one thing, what the public doesn't know or can't imagine, is the length to which you carry around this cadre of little guys inside your head. I'm constantly evaluating and re-evaluating each and everything I do...via every interaction I have with each and every student. Factor in the parent interface just to get a complete understanding...well, that alone gives your brain enough to burst its seams!

Last week, I was examining the inventory...something I've made a practice of over the years. Teachers, both rookies and vets, have to lighten their load to be effective in the classroom each day. see a whole mass of puppies and you find yourself treading water in the treacherous seas of all the state and national initiatives out there. You have to get a handle on the kids, because that will calm your raw nerves and settle your sleepless nights down.

The best way is to go back to the old three column model. I label one heading "ready & able," a second "needs a boost," and then a third "wild things." Underneath each heading, I take a look at each of my students to figure out where they fall. This is just a first blush, so don't get yourself too worked up over it at all. The "R&A" kids are a breeze for now, but don't forget to keep a pace and challenge them, or you could easily see a change in their ranks. The other two groups are the ones that will swim around in your head, so you've got to start chipping away. I generally look at that middle group and star two at a time, sit down with them, get to know trust so you can bring them along. Interest inventories are helpful, but really knowing them well is often the best start. You want to move them over to the "R&A" column as quickly as you can, or the "Wild Things" might draw them in!

The "Wild Things," are often the toughest group, but it's usually upon close inspection just a few kids. These students can often be jaded, undermotivated or underchallenged in previous years, or they're just desperate for negative attention, because they have no other strategy to be social at all. Right now, that's the case for a few of mine. My work with them is to set things straight. I let them know "Teaching is a business," and they will not disrupt others or interfere with their own learning. I also let them know that I really care about them...and I follow through by demonstrating that fact. Lastly, I hold them accountable, because that's the best way to show them I mean what I say.

It's October, things are starting to turn the corner in room 229 A. I've taught students many of the behaviors I expect by modeling almost everything you can imagine in class. Transition language, for example, "I'm expecting to see the 3 S's in five seconds." (Sit, Settle in Silence...then I give them the cue, tell them what they need and they get the 4th S: Sort) I've taught them how to carry their books, how to line up outside my door (this still needs work!), and we've already had NMGTTLD (No More Going to the Locker Day). But best of all, with all this under my long last, I'm starting to sleep through the whole night again!

Teachers need to take good care of themselves! Make yourself a priority today!

Monday, September 24, 2012

The New Teacher on the Block: An Inventory

Hello to all my newest teacher friends out there in this brave new world! You, like me, are probably scrambling right now to get to know your students really, really well. This year, there are all kinds of measures in place to 'help' us gain focus and clarity in all we do. Not feeling focused and clear? Are your nerves a little raw? Do you feel like you're climbing a mountain that has no top?

Welcome to the world of education! It's okay, regardless of new programs, new curricula, the now famous CCSS (Common Core State Standards) and the new teacher evaluation measures (rubric, as always included), you're guaranteed to make it to June! And really? That is the objective here, let's be honest. Okay, just kidding, I know. You're probably a little frazzled and scared. If you weren't, you would not be normal.

But the most important insiders' secret...take it a teaspoonful at a time. These students have no clue, nor should they, what you're going through! Oh...and you have behavior and parents and grading to deal with? No problem, it all gets done. But it's really important that you do what you can, and leave the rest to the next day.

Take it from me, if you don't grab time to catch your breath, to laugh, to leap, to look outside the classroom doors? You'll be burnt out by January. So, right now...RIGHT NOW--instead of considering a new career choice? Sit down, and write down the top five things you hate most about teaching. Do this! It's important that you inventory your dislikes right away! (As soon as you admit them to yourself, you'll start finding a way to get them off the list.) Being honest is a good thing, it helps you see what you might actually need help with, but maybe wouldn't really want to admit. Next, write down the ten things you kind of like.

For dessert, write down all the things that you couldn't do without...that little upside down grin from the skinny little kid with the crooked bangs, the grapes you were offered from those germy fingers at snack time, the student whose hand is raised even when you haven't asked a question, the little things they know about you already that you thought nobody knew! (They're fierce teacher watchers...can't study for a test, but boy, if they were given a test on you, they'd pass with flying colors, for sure!)

Now, honestly, don't you feel better? I know you do! Teaching has many challenges and even for a veteran those hurdles are becoming much more than a leap! But taking an inventory helps us all to keep a perspective, and it helps you be focused in clear in what it is you hope to achieve. Keeping a journal will also reap some huge rewards! This week, I'll return to the inventory concept again. Inventories, as they say, are not always taken in red ink, there's a whole lot of good happening right in front of your eyes!

What little moment did you absolutely love today?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

You Don't Always Get What You Want...

Chagrin. Teaching, sometimes, has its moments. Times when things don't always go the way we plan. An assembly pops up, a writing prompt, and sometimes a snow delay. Interruptions break the thread, they're inconvenient, but ultimately a good teacher can put order back into his or her day.

Observations are a different animal, though. They have the power to push someone forward, or they can break the teaching momentum that's building inside a teacher's head. Rehearsed teaching is difficult and inauthentic to produce on demand, but the false idea of that teaching can be perfected is even worse. Yet, this has been the model we've employed in education for years.

Confidence. Teachers need buckets and buckets and buckets of it. The public has been taking teachers apart in the press and in commentary on blogs and other public platforms. It's not helpful. I repeat...NOT helpful. Insiders know better, or I'm thinking they should anyway. Administrators, college officials, all individuals hired to assign a value to what teachers do need to develop a consistent, predictable scoring approach.

Probably the most important indicator to look at first in a young teacher is not how they manage the curricula they're trying to stuff into the kids' heads...but their ability to establish a presence and a class culture, because without that, nothing else can proceed.

I'm not saying that we should go slowly or pat teachers on the head and affirm them no matter what they do. Really, that's how you make negative teaching techniques go on for years. But the employment of outside individuals coming in cold to a classroom culture is not always helpful either. In fact, it can sometimes be destructive.

A colleague of mine from another district told me his principal refuses to give positive feedback at all. "That's what you're supposed to be doing, it's not my job to give you a compliment." Oh, give me a break. As an administrator, you are called upon to be a teacher of what kind of teaching is that? When a teacher, just like a student, does something never hurts to tell them so. In fact, it probably helps! Building upon a learner's strength, nudging them ahead a little bit at a time is the name of the game we call education.

So...what happens when you don't get exactly what you hoped to hear? My student teacher got a glowing review the other day. Yet, because her supervisor lead off with a small issue that was minimally not going was hard for her to hear anything after that. She's a brilliant teacher, and I tell her so each day. We reflect side by side and think about what we can improve upon.

On the day of her observation, we were forced to compress the whole day...snowfall, ninety minute delay, all part of the job. But. Compressing to her meant speeding it all up, and I blame myself for that. Upon reflection, we could've cut more out. But even though we didn't get exactly what we wanted in outcome, a powerful lesson was learned. Streamlined, but very pointed teaching can often produce the same results. Pacing is a high-level skill that takes more than three weeks to acquire.

The point that I see here is one that I'll take in for myself. The approach to new talent in teaching has to be a gentle one. The positive card must always be tossed out first. Strenghts...and then needs. And better yet? Setting up the two columns for reflection: 'strengths and needs,' allowing her to reflect on her own quagmires, and talking it through with her is probably the best way to start.

Ultimately, she'll have 25+ pairs of eyeballs and that'll be all she'll see. Observations come, and observations go...constant, gentle self-reflection, that intuitive knowing sense when things don't go your way, that's what will feed the instruction each day. But keeping that core belief in yourself is more important than anything anyone else can say!

Teaching and learning is a complicated business. It's the one job where I get to fall on my face and stumble a bit, then pick myself up and start all over each day!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Student Teacher: Who is that Student in the Window?

How much is that puppy in the window? Priceless, Spot, I know.  New puppies, like new teachers need to be nurtured, celebrated and allowed to grow. In today's market that's a pretty tall order, though. How many great talents live on the other side of the window looking in?

Right now, I'm enjoying my time with my student teacher. She's full of ideas and loaded with intuitive skill. I try to be sure to let her know that all the time. Mostly because she, like me so many years before, is plagued with doubt at times. That is the quality of good teaching that just is so totally unavoidable.

Here's a slice of what we're working on right now:

Notice What You Notice: Expostiory Writing is Teaching/Scaffolding an Idea Right from the Start

My yoga instructor uses the phrase, "Notice what you notice," all the time. In yoga, it means, notice what aches/pains, trials/successes your body is having when you're in that pose. Look at the response and make changes. In teaching, it means monitor your learners, the terms of responses or in terms of what they put on the page. Some might call it 'modifying and adapting,' but it's just so much more than that.

The other day I was teaching a writing lesson, and I was listening to students respond with questions just before they went off to write. Right at that point, I realized that half the reason kids have trouble revising their writing comes from the fact that they never have to meet the reader half way. It dawned on me that they don't get to study their reader's reaction or hear their questions like I do everyday in my teaching. I responded to the students' questions, then brought this up later in the group. I showed them all how I added and enhanced what I'd taught them by adding more key information to clear up misunderstanding along the way.

Now my biggest question to my students is what do you want the reader to know most? And why?
Students are now asked to check in with their peers, and check in with adults to insure proper understanding, because they, like me and like my student teacher all need to be on board in understanding...thinking in the mind of the reader and then processing all that information in order to make their expository piece keep its feet on the ground.

This week, the teacher will be sitting back, conferencing with kids...with the student teacher, and watching the great levels of learning unfold! The art of truly the art of constantly chasing the learning that lies underneath!

Personal Connection Gone Wrong: How kids talk to one another around books can either deepen or worsen their reading practice.

The other day, we were conferencing with our 'book club communities,' small groups we've organized around student book choice. Kids are reading a variety of books leveled specifically for them such as Lemonade Wars, The Wednesday Wars, The Thing About Georgie and The Landry News. We both noticed the quality of discussion was lacking and realized kids were 1) not getting the connection to the assigned journal responses in their discussion and 2) were minimalists and limited in their conversational skills.

So...we read The Man that Walked Between the Towers, with each other first...and no discussion between us. And then, I read it aloud to the group. Then we told the kids we were going to set up three talking points each on our chart (set up in a T chart) and these three points were not discussed prior to the kids coming into the class. This was all authentic and all done right in front of them.

Our ideas/talking points (which were our reactions/connections to the story) were totally different. She focused on an experience with Cirque de Soleil, and I saw this as a boy with a dream and talked about my dream to become a teacher and the journey that brought me there. We modeled eye contact and attentiveness, but we also modeled the key component to good human communication, listening in order to be transformed/bonded to one another in thought. That's what a good author wants. That's what a great reader gets.

I love having a second pair of eyes and ears in the room. Teaching can be a lonely job...opening up and sharing with others is what keeps it a passionate pursuit for me!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Old Dogs and New Tricks: COACH for America-Redesigning our City Schools

How do we get new teachers...especially the current group of rookies who are probably populating our most needy classrooms to stay? We love their enthusiasm. We value their ideals. inspire an urban population to learn, there's so much more to it than that. I know, I've been there.

In the mid-seventies, our core of teaching graduates faced a similar situation to those that are graduating right now. We were the tail end of the Baby-Boomers, and that huge group had taken all the available jobs. When I first got out of school, I had to supplant my ideals, suck it up and take a job in order to pay my bills. I waitressed at night and worked in an office by day. I was a horrible typist, an even worse accountant, so they capitalized on my chattiness instead. They had me work to educate customers, to problem solve and to get cranky clients off their backs. But I still had my ideals in place. I just wanted a chance to immerse myself in a culture of kids. My chance came, but it wasn't exactly my dream job...or so I thought.

My first job was teaching hearing impaired preschoolers in Bridgeport, CT. I had zero experience in sign language and even less exposure to the deaf world. But that didn't matter. I had a classroom, keys and a coffee cup in the teachers' room. I was so ready to teach!

What I'd soon find out, and what I've spent years in that the path to understanding and defining myself as a teacher takes many circuitous routes. I learned an awful lot from the kids themselves...getting into their heads and trying to understand what they didn't know, so I could plug in the gaps and push them ahead in their education and their lives. But trial and error has a very long, hard learning curve. And today, my biggest worry is that young teachers will die on the vine before we have a chance to launch them, celebrate them and give them the support they need.

With no disrespect intended, colleges do the best they can do with our new crop. They do a lot more than was done when I was there back in the day. No one really knew how to best expose student teachers to all that they need to know. So much of it happens on the front line.

Here's my thinking about all this...if rookies are the biggest teaching population that our most needy urban students have, how can we move our urban kids forward? Must they always be the test kitchen for these brilliant, but often wasted minds? I have never forgotten my first days in the classroom...that feeling of being so overwhelmed. I believe the Teach for America model is a good one, but why not COACH FOR AMERICA as well? My thought is this: take those, like me, who are still so very passionate about what we do. Allow us to gain a 'two-for'...two years toward our retirement for every one year we coach in an urban school. Let us work with these rookie teachers (and their administrators), guiding and reflectin with them on everything they do. Give us the opportunity to infuse the curriculums with a richness that is currently absent there. (Most/many American urban public schools have reduced themselves to scripted learning...yup, the awful old basals are back, b/c they can't trust the teachers to immerse kids in great read-alouds and conversations anymore. High stakes testing has driven that decision with kids that are the most environmentally deprived on this earth.)

What this idea allows is a chance for the system to right itself. Use what we, the veterans, know, while clearing the way for more teaching jobs to emerge. I'm not a person looking to retire, but a teacher looking to right what's most wrong in education today. My inspiration came long ago in watching the third season of The Wire, set in the Baltimore Public Schools. Since then, it's grown and developed and I feel a need to put it out there for anyone willing to talk about it today.

Any takers?