Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Think Spot!

Okay, Spot, okay. I know I pushed my luck today. I asked you to think, and really? It's only Tuesday...two days after turkey overload. "Stop the action," I said. "Put me inside your brain." What was I thinking, honestly?

I looked up from the piece of writing I was crafting in front of you and all the other pooches...and that's when the smiles and the smirks began. Inside your heads, you were thinking...lunch, definitely, lunch or recess, definitely, recess. You were chasing a squirrel or sniffing around a bush in the park. I knew that, Spot. After all, I'm not that old a dog myself. I get it.

It was writer's workshop time, and we were and still are embarking on a whole new journey. You see, Spot. Teaching is not just about tests. My job is to get you to make your thoughts and feelings known and expressed clearly on the page. So...when everyone loosened up a bit, I could hear the laughter erupt around me. The conversations about what you were all thinking broke out and that's when the fun began. I caught myself...I was being the 'sage on the stage' talking too much and forgetting to engage all of you.

The lesson; crafting a meaningful 'thought shot,' slowing down the action within a story to live inside the character's mind. Lemony Snicket, EB White, and JK Rowling were our guests today, and what a great job they did! You see, Spot, there's no greater teacher than those kind of experts. I can talk and talk until, as my dad would say, I'm blue in the face (oy, that's an awful thought!). But the truth is, kids love to dig into great literature. They can find those thought-shots, watch the true writing unfold and talk to each other to discover what to put on their own page.

So, now, after a very long day in the trenches, Spot...I'm thinking. Some folks call it metacognition, when a person thinks about and evaluates their own thoughts. But...I'm thinking about your thinking, so I'm not at all sure what you call that! I'm after elaboration...in small vignettes, in the exposing of the moment and in the snap shot too. I have a range of doggies this year, who seem to fall in the 'somewhat developed range' with either inadequate or minimally adequate details. My challenge is to get you over the fence, to think as you write, and to express all the smallest details.

So Spot? No more chasing rainbows...I want you to grab that squirrel by the tail! Specifics, that's the difference in your work.

Here's a bit of JK Rowling's specifics for you:

Harry looked around. One thing was certain: Of all the teachers' offices Harry had visited so far this year, Dumbledore's was by far the most interesting. If he hadn't been scared otu of his wits that he was about to be thrown out of school, he would have been very please to chance to look around it.
It was a large and beautiful circular room, full of funny little noises. A number of curious silver instruments stood on spindle-legged tables, whirring and emitting little puffs of smoke. The walls were covered with portraits of old headmasters and headmistresses, all of whom were snoozing in their frames.
There was also an enormous, claw-footed desk, and, sitting on a shelf behind it, a shabby, tattered wizard's hat--the Sorting Hat.
--JK Rowling, THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS, ch. 12

JK did for me what I could not do for myself: she showed, firsthand, how to put a few thoughts on the page, create a mood and then show me what Harry was walking into. She had us eating out of the palm of her hand, Spot! We could see, feel and think right inside Harry's brain. And, best of all, she got us to the sorting hat...which, of course, is where she wanted us all along!

So tomorrow, Spot, we'll think it, show it, and make it real for the reader, because that, in a nutshell, is what good writing is all about. Find that in all your reading, and believe me, Spot, you won't chase the squirrel, you'll be chasing those words on the page!

Good dog, Spot. You're dismissed for today!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

At Long Last, A Shift in Teacher Training!

The Rookies are coming! The Rookies are coming! Well, not so fast, Spot. You're still stuck with little old me.

Ever since I got out of school, lo those many years ago, I've often thought about how very different teachers in our country should be trained. We all adapt once we're on the job. We hide under our proverbial rocks and pray no one opens our classroom doors.

But today, Spot? I was listening to Marketplace and Kai Ryssdal was reporting on the miserable state of affairs in Louisianna schools today. But then, there was that little ray of hope I always listen for. University of Louisianna at Monroe has completely revamped its teacher training program. Now honestly, it's an idea whose time has finally come.

'In my day,' we sat in stuffy classrooms, doodling and taking notes, doing anything we could do to stay awake. I didn't really take my first 'methods' class until my junior year! I remember that mostly, because I just couldn't wait. My sophomore year, I was required to observe in a classroom, and man did I lap that up! But then I waited all the way until my senior year to find myself in front of kids again.

And the sad news, Spot? Is the same system is still in place. Recently, I had a college student come in and observe in my room. She took her notes, tracked a single student and sat down and chatted with me. But that was it, Spot. And we won't see her again until her senior year. Imagine if our medical professionals, sales professionals, culinary students or trade school students operated like that. The carpenter would be able to tell you everything she/he learned about the angle one must take in lowering the hammer, but they'd never hit the nail on the head.

My hope is that America finally wakes up, cleans up teacher training programs, and places apprentice teachers out in the field. First of all, our resources are shrinking and we really could use their able hands. But more importantly, our students' needs are greater than ever before. And no child should ever have to be the one training the teacher...it should always be the other way around!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Demystifying the Mystery

What is it about good writing that makes it so hard to define? I'm so sorry, Spot...I've had to pull in Calvin and Hobbs today...I know. Yick, right?! A cat in your SPOT. Today, I'm sending you off with a bone. You, my friend, are dismissed.

I'm talking now to all my teacher friends, to kids and their parents, to anyone, really, who is eager and willing to listen.

My school system, much to the chagrin (and understandably so) of the parents, has decided to take a half day to inservice its teachers in good teaching practices focused on good writing. The bottom line, of course, is the test scores, and everyone knows this is so. But to the outside communty at large, this is a huge sacrifice, and therefore there has been quite a bit of strife.
Our teachers are not remedial, they say. Why do they need all this extra time?

I'd like to set the record straight, to give an inside peek at what is really happening inside the walls while the kids are outside on the street.

Teaching is not innate, and just as with students, teaching practices repeated over time can become habitual. There is no 'eye-in-the-sky' even under the best administrative practices that can equally insure quality control. No teachers are created equal, nor should they be. No one would want that robotic teaching, the 'cookie-cutter' approach to learning. For that, we all know is deadly. But teachers have to come together to find common ground, common issues and understandings that we can all support through instruction.

So here we were, on a sunny day in October, eleven or so of us, all in classrooms, gathered together over our 'Tuning Protocols'. I had the good fortune to be sharing one of my 'cuspy-kid's' writing. I say that not to be demeaning, nor to create a stereotype about a student, it is simply a designation made about the level of writing that this student is able to achieve, which is marginal...but really just below marginal at best. This student has just missed goal on the CMTs, and left to his/her own device, it will always be that way.

Our task: 'How can we elevate this student's ability to improve in the area of writing in this piece?' I gave the group some background...nothing personal, gender neutral, about this students' overall performance. Where he/she started on the writing continuum, and the goals and objectives that I am working on right now in class. Then the team set to work dissecting the piece and looking at that which we hoped to see improve.

The commentary was wide and diverse. Questions arose immediately related to the score I'd give this student for his/her writing if this were an assignment in class. I resisted. The facilitator returned to the question at hand and encouraged teachers to take notes and mark up the piece as we moved along. The same teacher who had raised the question about score, pressed again to inquire about grade, "What grade would you give this piece," he asked. His background is math, so the question did not surprise me. He deferred to his own education and how he, himself, would've been scored on the piece. His issue was missing capitals and periods. Another teacher asked about paragraphing.

When asked what the expectation was for a sixth grader, grammatically speaking, my colleagues and I were able to defer to the standards...yes, paragraphing and periods should be in place. Sentences, at least those in the simple variety, should be well-defined with a capital and period. But this student was stretching his/her simple sentence border, and expanding ideas within. We could then say that commas are the order of the day in sixth grade. Kids are learning how to combine sentences effectively, stretching into compound, complex sentences. This is their whole year's challenge at this grade. The piece was written in September, the very beginning of school.

And then we launched into another discussion about what we hoped to see in a piece of writing.
This was the best part of all. Around the table sat the physical education, art, band, math, science, social studies and language art teachers. We all looked at the ideas this student had tried to put forth in this piece. He'd stretched to identify the person that most inspired him, but his reach was not really developed at all. We talked about what we would've liked to have seen, as he put his dad up there on the page. Many of the students identify their parents as inspirational, but they don't have the meat...the specifics to put a fluent piece together at all.
At the end of our two hour session, we all came to the same conclusion. This student's need was really in the area of idea generation. We could see how a mutual effort to talk to this student, to engage him in discussion as a regular practice prior to getting him to the page, we might be able to help him to practice the steps to good writing: verbal rehearsal leads to pay dirt, we concluded. So...in this short session, we hit pay dirt too. We could see the many students who are not unlike this one, who just need that steady boost to get a few clear ideas on the page.

And as far as the bottom line goes? The truth is, the bottom line is not the test or the score that matter at all. Students need to express their ideas clearly with great fluency, but Rome wasn't built in a day. The math teacher was coaxed into the simple understanding that you can't look under the hood until you've assessed the collateral effect of the piece as a hole. The band teacher left there with a plan to implement writing within his own discipline. The language arts teacher left with an opportunity to collaborate with the band teacher on that piece of writing. And the art teacher had a plan too. Last to leave were the two math teachers who also happen to teach reading as well. They were discussing writing and rubrics in reading and how that could translate to math. Teachers focused on writing is sure to bring baleful results.

What stands true in education today is that it is fluid, not static as it has been for so many years. Many teachers leave their college training programs with a bit of philosophy, a few methods courses and a student teaching experience. The great teachers evolve and evolve some more; they continue evolving and learning until the day they walk out the door. This two hour block that cost the district nothing was a bit of pay dirt for us all. Now, as I roll up my sleeves with my student, I have that deep knowledge that I am not the only one cheering him/her on!
So even though I know this is a sacrifice for the parent community, it is a breath of fresh air that informs instruction and opens the learning to a wider, grander stage. It takes a village to educate a child well in today's world, and educators must be fluid in their methods and their understandings of it all!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Out to Sea

Now Spot, I don't want you getting any ideas or anything, but imagine what it would be like to just take off one day in a little white boat and head out to places unknown. What if the pure purpose was to plan and execute your own education, to travel somewhere else to learn. Imagine how inspired you'd be!

Well, Spot, after seven years, a teacher has that opportunity, or they did at one time, anyway. They could actually take off for half a year or even a full year and still maintain their salary. Good for the kids, great for the teacher. Sabbatical-noun: an opportunity to gain new learning; to open the mind to a new way of thought.

In today's world of education, sabbatical is a phenomena that's been phased out, mostly because of cost. Paying for a substitute teacher while maintaining the regular teacher's salary is cost prohibitive, so therefore it doesn't exist. In its place, professional development became a way of bringing the best minds in education into a district or a single school building to bring to life research-based instruction ideas right to the staff on the frontline. In my current district, I've experienced the best of the best from Columbia's Teacher College Writing Project to H. Lynne Erickson's Concept-Based Instruction.

In the past two years, my colleagues and I have begun to follow the Dufour's approach to teaming with the Professional Learning Communities. PLCs are not a new concept to me. Teachers focus on data, and purposeful goals, sharing their best teaching practices is something that works well for me. PLCs, done well, require time and conversation to really go deep into the work. The Dufour approach requires teachers to come together regularly in order to design a purposeful, united community that has the child's best interest at heart. It requires hours of trusted sharing and listening with a vested commitment to the learning outcomes of each child.

You know you belong in a PLC if:

1. You believe the fundamental purpose of your school or district is to ensure all students learn at high levels, and you are committed to become a lifelong learner to make this a reality.

2. You think collaborative teamwork and interdependence among teachers and administrators is a great way to continuously improve your school or district.

3. You are hungry for evidence that students are learning and are ready to respond immediately when timely feedback tells you otherwise.

The greater community is clamoring for results. They're pointing all their energies at putting our schools under the microscope. But often, Spot, public criticism mounts before an idea is understood. Right now, we have a wonderful opportunity...to dig deep, to use the cost-free talent of our professional educators, the ones that shine inside our ranks.

Right now, more than ever before, teachers need support and understanding in order to accomplish some pretty high level goals. We have an enormous initiative in place called RtI which requires us to identify, assess, frequently monitor and intervene to insure proper outcomes for students at risk. We all want to see that happen Spot, but we need those in the know to spread a positive word, to support our work and to restore public respect to the art of teaching.

So Spot, spread the word...the learning never ends for you or for me. And that my friend, is a very good thing! I can't take off in a boat, but I can knuckle down and refresh my practice just like others out there in the professional world. And that is a very good thing for you!