Monday, December 30, 2013

In 2014…Leave Your Comfort Zone!

In a previous post, 9 Tips for Teaching in the Wild, I wrote:
Be the lead learner. ... If you think you are going to push kids to grow and take risks, ask yourself when was the last time you took a risk and tried to learn something new and challenging.
You are already good at many things…staying in your comfort zone is…well, it's comfortable. As humans, we like being comfortable. It feels nice. But GROWTH requires a step outside of that zone. 
We've all seen this:

But one of my teachers explained it to me like this:
There is a range, between the comfort zone and the "panic zone," where we are open to learning. In describing Habit 1 of his 7  Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey uses a similar graphic, with "area of influence" in the center and "area of concern" in the outer ring. Proactive people focus on their area of influence and, by so doing, that circle actually grows larger. 

I believe it is the same with learning.When stepping outside the comfort zone becomes habit, the learning zone increases. We become more comfortable with the feeling of growth, so that it fails to bring on panic. We become better learners.

Cal Newport, author of So Good They Can't Ignore You, calls this deliberate practice. He says that deliberate practice, which involves regularly stretching beyond one's comfort zone is what distinguishes the good from the great. 
"If you just show up and work hard, you'll soon hit a performance plateau beyond which you fail to get any better…Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that's exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands…Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration."
In the new year, let's resolve to become better teachers by making learning a habit, the kind of learning that stretches us and feels uncomfortable. I believe this is the most important and vital thing you can do to become a better teacher. 
What will you learn?

Monday, December 16, 2013

Teaching with the Daily 3

I have adapted the Daily 5 structure for my 4th/5th grade language arts class from five to three. I also read aloud almost every day to my classes, so they do listen to reading as well.

A few reasons I LOVE Daily 3:

  • Modeling- I followed the careful plan outlined in the book for creating anchor charts with students and modeling the correct and incorrect ways of doing each component. Normally, because time is such an issue, I find myself skipping steps. I expect things of students that I may not have carefully modeled. The modeling for Daily 3 takes time, but it is time well-spent. Everyone knows what to do and they quickly settle into productive activities. 
  • Choice- I believe in giving students choice, as much as possible. Freedom within form works. Some students need more guidance with their choices, so I help with that. Other students have the maturity to manage their time and are able to be highly independent. 
  • Personal Learning-This goes with choice. Motivation happens when we are fueled by our own interests and pushed to grow in accordance with our own abilities. It is a lot of work to be a coach and guide, to retain the flexibility and responsiveness to push each student. Despite the challenge, I can't imagine that one size fits all would do the job. 
  • Authentic Literacy- This word "authentic" is starting to sound buzzwordy to me. I understand that we all have different definitions of what this means.  Authentic is the opposite of schooly. I am willing to bet that when offered the challenge of choosing five books for a desert island, it is a very rare individual who would choose a basal reader. Where the notion ever originated that canning and condensing the art of children's literature was a good idea could only have been from those who were poised to profit. However, I am amazed by the number of teachers who believe that they can't properly teach without the guidance provided by the accompanying materials. To those teachers I say, "read."


Daily 3 from Andrea Hernandez on Vimeo.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Uses for Google Forms

In her post, Getting Started With Google Forms, Catlin Tucker shares some interesting uses for forms in the classroom and asks for examples of other creative uses of Google Forms. Here are a few of mine.

Job Application: My 4th/5th grade students may apply for classroom jobs and, once "hired" they keep their jobs for approximately one month after which time they can apply for a new job or reapply for the same job. Jobs are optional.



Choosing our read-aloud book: I narrow down a list of possibilities to about 5 choices. When I share the form, I also share the links to the reviews of each book on Amazon. Everyone can vote privately for the book they really want without any peer pressure.


Daily 3 timesheet for accountability and self-monitoring:
I also tried using Google Forms to make a timesheet for students to record their Daily 3 choices. Since we rarely have time to do all three every day, I wanted them to make sure that they are choosing each activity over a week. I also wanted to have a way to see what they are doing, so I had them make a place on the form to record what they actually did during the time.

I demonstrated how to make the form, then had them make their own which they were supposed to share with me. It was a total failure for many reasons.

Because the Google form was such a pain and really didn't work, I decided to use an "old-school" paper graph with my other class. In some ways that one worked better, but overall I think the whole D3 accountability thing is not really working. 



Friday, December 6, 2013

9 Tips for Teaching in the Wild


Yes, I think I may have subconsciously borrowed "in the wild" from the title of Donalyn Miller's new book (which I haven't yet read), Reading in the Wild. I have the sense that she and I are on the same page (haha, pun intended) when it comes to teaching.

So, if you are a new reader, I will tell you that I am fresh back "in the classroom" after many years as an instructional coach/tech person, etc. I changed hats so often I lost track of my job title, but at the core (I only now realize) I was trying to change the culture of schooling to be more of a natural learning environment. After being told again and again why my ideas wouldn't work in a real classroom, I began to question myself. After all, the last time I had been a full-time classroom teacher was in the last century! So, when the opportunity presented itself to teach my favorite grades (4th/5th), my favorite subject (English language arts) and to pilot a brand new 1:1 iPad program...
I was scared. And it's been hard. And totally amazing. Now, with three months under my belt, I'm starting to really see the benefits of creating a "wild" learning environment. 

So, here are some tips I have for creating a natural environment where learning grows and flourishes.

1. Wait for it.
Nothing happens overnight. I started off with a million (seriously!) ideas. I wrote them down in a big book and then, I admit, I tried to make them happen as quickly as possible. When you plant seeds, they do not grow in one day. But they do grow. Have patience, little grasshopper!

2. Believe in it.
I have nourished and nurtured and developed my learning philosophy over years of reading, experiencing, growing, changing, watching and basically being passionate about what I do. I have a philosophy and I believe in it. This is not to say that I don't seriously question myself at times. But being rooted in a philosophy of learning is the soil in which the whole thing grows. The kids come to understand it and feel safe in the consistency of the environment.

3. Find your people.
There is no "I" in wild. Ok, so there is, but in my experience, nothing great happens without other people. I am blessed with phenomenal colleagues, a supportive administrator and many wonderful classroom parents. I also have developed a "PLN" that has developed me and continues to challenge me, connect with me and, at times, remind me that I am not crazy.

4. Trust kids.
I think that one of the biggest reasons that "student-centered learning" fails is that people are loathe to trust their students. After all, they are children, and they are going to make mistakes. And their mistakes might make me look bad as a teacher. Cultivating a student-centered mindset takes time (see #2), but it pays dividends. I have given my 4th/5th graders the keys to the castle, so to speak. It is a relationship based on trust and responsibility. I act as a coach and guide, but I also trust them to co-create the learning environment with me.

Exhibit A : This is their Twitter account, not mine.
They are logged in on their own iPads, decide who to follow/unfollow
and what to Tweet. A 4th grade student also designed the avatar.
Exhibit B: One example of what happens when you create the environment
and invite students to be co-creators of the learning. 

5. Be the lead learner. 
Everyone responds to passion. You can not find learning in the wild if you don't live there or at least visit often. Canned materials seem to offer comfort and structure, but they fail to ignite passion, nor do they meet the needs of diverse learners. The ONLY WAY you can discover all the opportunities for authentic teaching is to be an active, engaged, reflective learner. I also believe very firmly that you can not teach something that you do not practice.

Let me repeat, it is not enough that you graduated college and passed 4th grade way back when. If you teach reading, you must read. If you teach writing, you have to be a writer. If you think you are going to push kids to grow and take risks, ask yourself when was the last time you took a risk and tried to learn something new and challenging. 




6. Begin with the end in mind
Know the standards. Where are you trying to take your learners? What does growth look like? How you get there should not be predetermined because there are many paths. Flexibility and a spirit of exploration will enhance not detract, as long as you know where you are going.

7. Imagine it!I think the best teachers are blessed with abundant imaginations. Whether this comes from nature or nurture, I'm not sure. But I do think imagination, like every other trait, can be developed. We live in a time of abundance, where other people happily and freely share their own imaginative ideas for teaching. Pinterest offers a wealth of ideas.

8. When opportunity knocks, open the door!
When you hear about that great project, idea or learning opportunity, banish that little naysaying voice in your head that whispers, "There's not enough time" or "It's too much trouble" or whatever else it says. If it sounds like a great opportunity for your students, check it out. You know what learning looks like, right? Try something new. Even when things don't work out as we plan, there is always an opportunity for learning.

9. Enjoy the journey
You're allowed to have fun.



Friday, November 8, 2013

Real Reading: The Global Read Aloud

I'm thinking of writing a series of posts about making reading real. My definition of "real" (as opposed to schooly) is to use the kinds of activities and habits of mind that naturally and genuinely engage readers. My first post in the series (if, indeed it becomes a series) is a reflection on the Global Read Aloud or GRA. The Global Read Aloud is an amazing project started in 2010 by Pernille Ripp, a 5th grade teacher from Wisconsin.

Who Has the Time?
First of all, I had planned, before school even started, to participate in the GRA with at least one of my two language arts classes. But with so many Jewish holidays early in the school year and so little teaching time, I felt tremendous pressure to show evidence that my students were learning. Since I do not give traditional homework, nor do I use many traditional assessments (like weekly spelling lists, etc), I feel that my job is more challenging, as there is sometimes a basic lack of trust that educators are educating without constant (and often meaningless) data.

So, I seriously considered NOT participating.

And what a huge, huge mistake that would have been!

The only reason I did participate was to honor a commitment I had made (through the overwhelmingly large group on edmodo) to two other teachers.

The Book: Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper
I think the biggest reason for the success of the GRA in my classroom was the excellent choice of book. Right from the beginning, my students were hooked. The characters were either lovable or detestable, and the main character, Melody, touched our hearts and made us think deeply about people with disabilities.
The spontaneous connections and conversations that evolved in the classroom were a language arts teacher's dream.
Would you rather be Melody or August from Wonder
At the end of every session of reading, my students would literally groan and beg me to continue reading. It was the high point of my day, every day.
Several students couldn't wait to find out what would happen and finished reading on their own. Other students who told me at the start of the year that they do not enjoy reading, said that this is their favorite book ever.

The Connections
We kept our connecting fairly simple. Our class tweeters tweeted, using the #GRA13OOMM hashtag. We Skyped twice with 5th graders at the Seattle Hebrew Academy and once with 4th and 5th graders at Talmud Torah in St. Paul.

We commented on each other's blog posts. We discussed the book in a backchannel chat, using Today's Meet.
A snippet from our backchannel discussion with SHA


We also had one or two surprises. When Jagger wrote a personal reflection about people who are "different" I tweeted it. A teacher in Australia assigned her class to comment on Jagger's post! He was amazed and reflected on his blog,
"This has been a world wide post and I am really glad about this."
We had some other students comment on our posts as well, which is always appreciated.

Real Readers Do It
First of all, I am a HUGE advocate for reading aloud. I have personally experienced the myriad ways that listening to reading strengthens comprehension, vocabulary, fluency and, most importantly, love for reading. Reading aloud leads to non-contrived discussions of character, plot, literary devices, and comprehension strategies. Real readers love to talk about what they're reading. Real readers connect around stories, characters, problems and ideas. The more we read aloud as a class, the greater our shared history of books and characters from which to make text to text connections. 

Reflection
The Global Read Aloud was a very worthwhile use of our precious class time. I would do it again in a heartbeat and would highly recommend it to other teachers. Reading this book aloud would have been worthwhile without the global connections, but the global connections definitely amplified the students' interest in and opportunities for discussion. Finding one or two other teachers/schools to connect with was perfect for us, and tweeting with the hashtag brought some surprising and welcome connections. I am excited, as are the students, to choose together our next read aloud book. It will have to be excellent to follow this one. I would love to continue the GRA idea and find one or two other classes who are interested in reading the same book on the same schedule and connecting to discuss. 




Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Empowering Students Through Meaningful Jobs

Alan November's "Digital Learning Farm" was the inspiration for my classroom jobs. The idea couldn't be more simple: people are empowered through meaningful work. Children used to be, in the times of farming, useful and necessary contributors to their families' farms and other livelihoods. Once children's work became going to school full-time, that feeling of usefulness and importance faded. Most teachers understand the importance of giving kids jobs to do, and many traditional classrooms do designate roles such as "line leader" and "pencil sharpener"to fulfill these needs. Digital tools offer the possibility of exciting upgrades to these jobs, allowing students to learn through doing while making authentic contributions to their communities.

I am experimenting with how to best structure this so that it becomes a deep learning experience for students. I introduced the jobs to 5th grade a few weeks ago, then introduced and started with 4th grade. I decided that students would need to apply for the job and, once "hired" would have a tenure of about one month.


Classroom Jobs from Andrea Hernandez on Vimeo.

Available Positions:
Global Connectors : Tweet, look for and organize possible learning connections, manage maps
Researchers: Research information in response to questions that arise
Official Scribes : Take notes, write weekly summary post on classroom blog
Documentarians : Photo and video documentation of the week’s activities
Kindness Ambassadors: Make sure that all community members are included at lunch and recess, remind community members of habit of the month, model and recognize kindness, give appreciations and remind others to do so
Librarians: Keep classroom and virtual library shelves in order. Add books to class GoodReads shelves, keep GoodRead-Alouds wall updated, set appointments with Mrs. Hallett
Graphic Artist/Designer: Design things for the classroom and class blog- graphics, bulletin boards, displays, etc.
Job Requirements:
Previous experience is helpful but not required. You will be able to learn on the job. Most important qualities:  proactive, self-motivated, desire to learn.
All classroom work must be up to date in order to be considered for a job. 


Friday, October 18, 2013

Read, Respond, Relate: How Authentic Literacy Builds Relationships

As teachers, we have an overwhelming number of tasks that are part of our work.  Because time is a limited resource, we have to sometimes pick and choose, to the extent that we have choice, which tasks are most vital.
Being responsible, in large part, for a child's developing literacy is no small thing.
The foundation of teaching is relationship. Teaching is, in itself, an ongoing conversation between teachers and students.

In the old days (not the "good old days") I was an advocate of the interactive journal. Students wrote. I read and responded. It took so much time. Every Friday I carried home a heavy box filled with spiral notebooks. I spent a good portion of my weekend learning about my students, understanding what they understood, learning about their hopes, their families, their pets.
At one point, in an attempt to lessen my workload, I offered that turning in journals for my response would be optional. I had not one student opt out. And, even though my workload remained hard, I was happy. I knew it was the right use of my time.

Blogs are, at least physically, a lighter load. No longer do I have to lug a box of notebooks home and back. Although the medium has changed, the task itself and the benefits it conveys, is basically the same. It is important to me to carve out regular time to visit each student's blog, to read and to respond.
It is hard to quantify the value in terms of building relationships, modeling quality writing and ongoing assessment of students' thinking and writing. (This is not a post about grades, but this is another reason that I find grades stifling. How does one grade an ongoing conversation? )

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Seedlings- What's Going Well?

I got this idea from a new-to-me blog I'm really enjoying, Read, Write and Reflect.  From the post "Seeds:"
It amazes me how little time I feel that I have at the beginning of the school year. I feel that I’m constantly racing to get things done only to stop at the end of the day and see everything I didn’t do. This year I’m making a conscious effort to look for the seeds that show what is going well and marvel over them. 
This is me and not just at the beginning of the year.  I have a habit of focusing on how far there is to go. It is what compels me to strive, work hard, and push forward. However, I rarely take time to notice all that I have accomplished.
What's going well?
That is the question. And I've decided to answer it using artifacts.

Jagger wrote a really great blog post in response to the book,  Out of My Mind, which we are reading for the Global Read Aloud. Here is part of his post:
In Melody’s class there is a girl named Maria who has Down syndrome. She is always happy. This connects to me because my sister, Sydney, has Down syndrome and she is always happy. I really feel offended by knowing that people treat people with disabilities very poorly because even though they might be disabled or act differently doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings; they do and they care. Every time my sister gets a piece of candy or something it’s “Jagger too, get one for Jagger too” so they do care, they can learn. They are more like us than different. I want you to really think of that next time you see someone who appears to be “different.” Comment in the section below telling me if you have met someone different. Also, if you really want to make a difference go to a place like Hope-Haven and help out or donate to organizations that help kids with disabilities like DSAJ (Down Syndrome Association of Jacksonville).Wait don’t leave I have one more thing to say I haven’t been meaning to say different whenever talking about kids (or anyone really) with disabilities because like I said before, we are more alike than different.
I've started to introduce classroom jobs to 5th grade.  There are three students sharing the job of global connector. They are doing a great job tweeting from the class Twitter account.


Emily is one of the class documentarians. She is doing an amazing job taking photos without being distracting or disruptive. I have already seen a big improvement in her photos and the way she is using them to tell a story and document learning. Here are some photos and a Pic Collage she emailed me this week.  

             
I love how she showed the different jobs with this collage.

In 4th grade, we discussed the importance of taking time and effort to do quality work.



Students learned how to edit their own videos using the iMovie app, and they each filmed and edited a book talk. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Grades: What Would Houdini Do?


I get a daily "great work provocation" email that is supposed to provide a bit of inspiration, challenge, perspective change, etc. Often, they're too obscure for me, and I shrug and delete. Here was today's:
Houdini never found a pair of handcuffs he couldn't escape from.
What are the manacles that are tangling you up?
Time to pick the lock?
This one resonated. The manacles are that are tangling me up right now are grades. And I have no idea how to pick the lock!
image credit

First of all, the lock is on the building- I knew when I took this job that I would be expected to give letter grades. It is a job requirement. 
Some reasons that grades are tangling me up like handcuffs-
•Grades don't jive well with my personal philosophy of teaching. I believe in working with students where they are (not where I wish they were). Some students are highly capable, proactive, have tons of family support, etc. They can rock an assignment and need to be challenged to go above and beyond. Those would typically be the "A" students. Other students are disorganized, immature, and struggling. They are not always capable of the same challenges as their peers. 
One way I'm trying to address this is by using what my predecessor, Stephanie, used (and taught me) about individualized AR point goals. Each student has a VERY different point goal, and the grade will be dependent upon whether or not the student meets his or her own goals. But that only addresses one small part of the grades conundrum. 
•Grades don't provide the most useful feedback. I really related to this teacher, who traded letter grades for narrative feedback and found that it increased students' improvement and motivation. Despite carefully constructed grading scales and carefully worded and shared explanations, grades do often tend to be subjective. 
When discussing the move to teacher-led evaluations, I  talked to many of my colleagues about the "checklist" part of the evaluation tool vs. the narrative feedback. What I discovered was that teachers were often focused on the checklist, wanting the highest checks (straight As), but didn't really know what it meant in terms of professional development. It was the narrative feedback that was valued and valuable. 
•Grades don't motivate the ones who most need motivating. Yes, grades do motivate some kids, kids who might be on the borderline between an A and a B. Maybe they push themselves (or are pushed by their parents) to achieve higher in order to get the A. And I do think that is positive. But what about the ones who could care less? It seems that for some kids, grades may be a de-motivator. What about the kids who, even when they try hard, never get the A? 
•Having to give grades makes it tempting to go for the lower levels of Bloom's because those tend to be the easiest to quantify.


I'm doing this with the AR tests. The kids read a book and take a 10 question, multiple-choice test which mostly tests remembering and understanding. It's fine in small quantities, but it's hardly sufficient for meeting grade-level reading standards, let alone the broader goal of preparing students for a future where they need to think critically, create, collaborate, communicate and connect globally. 
Many things that I value and know are important activities can not be easily graded. I guess I can give a pass/fail type of grade for participating. But what end does that serve? 
•Grades are not authentic. Do you want your blog posts graded? What about your lesson plans? What if you mess up a lesson? Should you get a zero? Does that motivate YOU to be a better teacher? I don't want my posts stamped with an A, B or C, but I do very much want feedback and conversation. 

I will work to do my best to quantify learning and use grades to communicate, teach and motivate. But I am highly skeptical that this is the best use of my time as a teacher.
What do you think? 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Highs & Lows of Classroom Culture Change

I'm thinking the title of this post might be the title of my book.

Working to change culture in real classrooms-  with real students and all the restrictions, limitations, and downright clutter that characterizes real teaching is challenging. It's also the only thing that really, truly matters. There is so much talking, writing, asserting, theorizing, criticizing and debating. But, sometimes I wonder if, when all is said and done, more is said than done.

My last job, working to create a new school culture, was also challenging and fulfilling in it's own ways. But I always knew, in the back of my mind, that I was one step removed from the possibilities and the difficulties. I'd listen to teachers tell me I didn't understand, that it was harder than I made it seem. And I knew they were right. But I also knew that I was right about what needed to be done.
I knew there would be highs and lows. I knew, didn't I, that learning is messy.

So, now I have my own stories of messiness to celebrate, share and get over. I think today's messy story is a good one. I went from so high, best-class-ever, to failure, disappointment and a splitting headache in a span of less than 2 hours. 

Opportunity 
It started with an email I received from the Google teacher list. Google, as part of their public launch of Google Maps Street View of the Galapagos Islands (including underwater views!) was offering a virtual field trip experience. They were looking for two classes interested in chatting via Hangout with some of the photographers and conservation scientists who worked on the project.

It happened quickly. On Tuesday afternoon, I was notified of our acceptance to participate in Thursday's Hangout. I scrambled to notify parents (as we needed permission slips for the live broadcast) and prepare students. I wrote "Galapagos Islands" on the board. No one had heard of it. I instructed students to go home and learn something about the Galapagos, from whatever source they wished.

The High
The next day students came in brimming with excitement. One of my 4th graders had created a book, using Book Creator, to share what she'd learned about the Galapagos. She was careful to make sure we knew that she had only used Creative Commons licensed images from Pics4Learning. She had even taken video of her bird in her backyard to show what she thought the Galapagos was like.

I hadn't planned to spend a lot of time having students share but in that moment, lesson plans took a back seat to learning. It was amazing, definitely the best teaching moment I've had this year.
Every student wanted to share what they did and what they learned. We watched videos, looked at Wikipedia and viewed captivating images. Curriculum connections flowed seamlessly from language arts to geography to math to digital citizenship to how-to-read a Wikipedia page. The one student who had not done the homework was obviously upset. I believe that next time that child will be much more likely to "remember" the assignment.
Looking at Wikipedia
Sharing her notes
And the low...
 Then came the time for the G+Hangout. Jobs were assigned. Students were excited. Very excited. We went to the library. It felt a bit stressful for me, trying to get everyone settled, make sure we were on time connecting to the hangout, and make sure that students with roles and responsibilities (photographing, videoing, asking questions, taking notes, etc) knew what to do.
We connected to the Hangout. We could see and hear the other classroom, the people from Google, the researchers from Ecuador and Australia. Our mic was muted, but our students were ready to step forward and ask their questions when the time was right.
We waited. And we waited.
Technical difficulties at Google were preventing the live broadcast that was, for Google, the whole point of the hangout. I typed into the chat, telling them that we only had a certain amount of time, that we were so excited....
We waited some more. While we waited I showed the students the amazing Street View tours and images. It felt a bit chaotic because the hangout was still open, and we could hear them trying to fix the issues.

We had to leave to go to lunch at 12:45. Students begged to eat in the library and keep waiting, but we decided, after 45 minutes of waiting, to call it a day. We were all extremely disappointed, and some students were angry, saying, "What a waste of time!"

I saw later, that the Hangout did finally take place and Google got the live broadcast they wanted. It was no big deal for them to say we have one classroom here with us (rather than the two that were supposed to be).

Learning from Everything
I'm not sure where to go from here. I thought maybe I would, at least, receive an apology email from Google that I could share with students. But, sadly, I have noticed over the years that many companies want to connect with students and schools mainly for their own purposes. I guess it looked cool to have a school in the Hangout.

But what about the kids?

The woman who organized the Hangout told me she used to be a teacher. Has she forgotten what it's like to quickly pull together 30 students and prepare them for something like this? It's not easy to do, and it's not easy to explain away the disappointment when it doesn't work.

We are learning about the 7 habits of highly effective people, and right now we are focusing on habit #1: Be Proactive. So, in my next-day discussion with students, we talked about being proactive in our response to disappointment. We talked about how we learn from every situation, even if what we learn is not what we hoped or planned to learn.

As students prepared to write their reflective posts about the week, I asked them to think about using proactive language instead of blaming. We talked about how it's ok to express feelings and how that is different than blaming. So, maybe that is one thing we've learned for now. Things don't always work as planned when you take risks and try things.
Evan's Blog





Saturday, September 7, 2013

I Hope You Like It!

You and I are bombarded with information on a minute-by-minute basis. Tweets, subscriptions, emails...everyone has something you "must" watch, read, share. Who has the time? Even a 5 minute video is waaaay tooooo looooong.
Unless....it isn't.

What makes something worth your time? 
Obviously the answer is somewhat personal. And I'm not just talking about things that "go viral"(although that is an interesting phenomenon, one I should study further ).

It's a push-pull.
Push- we need to get more students and teachers blogging. It makes the most sense as a way to promote and teach literacy in the broadest sense.
Pull- My students are blogging! My second graders made this great video! Leave us a comment!!! Please.

As more and more students and teachers are creating and connecting, we're filling the web with more stuff. And, while we learn a lot from making the stuff, we all want the validation that comes from having another person- a reader, a viewer, a fellow-learner- connect with our creation. And we only receive that validation if a person takes the time to not only watch or read but to actually let us know by leaving a thoughtful comment.

I reflected, in Where's the Authentic Audience, on the phenomenon I've noticed where kids, left to their own creative devices, often conclude a piece of work with the words "I hope you like it."
They hope YOU like their post. They are writing and creating for you, a reader.

-How do I connect my student bloggers with meaningful, quality comments?
-How does blogging represent authentic literacy if the only audience is the teacher?

I wonder about this for my students, but also for myself.  I would welcome more real (for lack of a better description) conversation. Is it the type of posts I write? They're pretty tame, I'm not trying to stir the pot or be particularly disruptive. (tempted to complain here about other bloggers who complain about teachers not connecting but actually do not model connecting by answering comments on their blogs, but I am restraining myself)
I'm simply a teacher/educator/thinker/learner/human trying to use writing as one tool for my own growth.

But I have to admit...I hope you like it.


Friday, August 30, 2013

5 Ways I'm Using Apps in the Classroom

As I'm wrapping up week #2 teaching language arts in a 4/5 1:1 iPad environment, I thought I would try a "5 ways..." type of post. One of my many goals this year is to be a better sharer, so I am pushing myself to blog each week and to try different styles of writing. Let me know what you think, please!

1. Apps for Student Blogging

We have experimented, thus far, with three apps for student blogging: WordpressChrome and Safari. All of them have great features, as well as limitations. One thing we've learned the hard way is not to use the camera from within the blog post. It is best to take the photos from outside of the blogging app and then import from camera roll. 

I'm amazed at how quickly the students are beginning to fluently use multiple apps to achieve a task. When 5th graders, for instance, wanted to add "Choose Kind" badgesas sidebar widgets, they quickly discovered that it made sense to use the Wordpress app to upload the image, but it required switching to one of the browser apps to add the code to a text widget. 

Note: Our student bloggers would love to connect with other student bloggers, and we would welcome readers and comments. 

2. Apps for Classroom Management

After carefully reviewing the features of Class Dojo, I decided against using it for behavior management. Many teachers are thrilled with it, though, so it might be worth a try. So what apps am I using? I am enjoying plugging my iPad into speakers (necessary to hear the sound) and using the free app, Tibetan Bowls, as a lovely chime to get students' attention.  I've also been experimenting with using mellow music via Pandora, as thinking music while students are writing. Sometimes the music adds a nice element of calm to the room, although some students find it distracting. 

3. The camera!

The camera is a no-brainer.  Of course, we  use the camera constantly to document and capture. But here is a fun Pinterest-inspired way I've used the camera to practice our "Give Appreciations" norm and to create something for students who are celebrating birthdays. I simply email the photo to the student (and his or her parent) to save and enjoy.


4. Words With Friends

I put Words With Friends on our app list, thinking that we would use it as part of Daily 5 word work. I haven't even started introducing Daily 5 yet, but students have discovered and are loving WWF. In fact, it's become a class wide obsession. 
I quickly made three rules: no using the chat feature during school, no logging in with Facebook (as 4th and 5th graders should not have Facebook anyway) and no choosing "random opponent." I love that they are so focused on playing around with the ways letters combine to form words. Fun stuff.

5. Apps for Creative Assessment

What are students actually learning? How well do they understand the concepts? Assessment will be one of the most central ways I envision using iPad apps this year. When students create, I get excellent feedback on how well they actually understood a concept. This week, as part of our school's implementation of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, we learned Habit 1: Be Proactive. After our readings and discussions, I wanted to understand how well students had integrated this concept into their own schemata. 4th graders used Pixie and 5th graders used Comic Maker to demonstrate their understanding of the concept of being proactive. 





Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Essential Question: "What is Language Arts?"

In building the foundation for a year of learning in the language arts classroom I feel it is important to connect students to the big picture.
What is language arts?
In school, language arts often comes in pieces and parts: spelling, grammar, and vocabulary, reading fluency and comprehension, memorizing poetry, AR levels and tests.
I am a big picture learner.
I believe in connecting, as much as possible, the pieces and parts to the authentic purpose. I believe that even young students can connect with big ideas.

So I asked my students, "What is language arts?"
A 5th grader responded:
"Language Arts has a bunch of divided into different activities like, reading, writing, and vocabulary.  Writing improves your spelling and punctuation.  Reading improves your grammar.  Vocabulary improves the way you speak.  The type of tests you do are AR, Spelling, and Vocabulary." (emphasis mine)
This answer shows some insight, but it's totally backwards. Does an athlete play soccer to become better at passing the ball? I worry that it is the teaching of skills without connecting them to authentic literacy is what leads to these disjointed ideas. 
Wordle of student responses

We discussed the connections between reading, writing, communicating and thinking. Then students worked together to brainstorm lists of verbs and nouns that pertained to language arts. 


Finally, with the help of our wonderful art teacher, Shana Gutterman, each student chose one special word to decorate. We are going to create a colorful word wall in the classroom which will hopefully serve as an ongoing reminder to all of us of the beauty, purpose and artistry of language arts.





Friday, August 23, 2013

I Said No to Homework...

I've been following the homework debate for years. As an educator, I've read Alfie Kohn's The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing (here is a summary of his ideas) as well as numerous articles, blog posts and online discussions of research, theory and practice regarding homework. (For some bloggers whose writing reflects my own thoughts well, check out Dr. Justin Tarte and Pernille Ripp.) I was an avid follower of the now-defunct site Stop Homework and learned a lot from following discussions there.

As a mom of two school-aged children I've tried to present a positive attitude about homework to my kids while letting it be "their thing." 
Image Credit
When I thought about returning to classroom teaching I knew that I could not, in good conscience, assign homework. 
I felt conflicted, not with the rightness of the decision, but with how to best express it to parents.  I wrote several drafts of my "homework policy," referring to research and seeking feedback from those I trusted.

I felt nervous to be starting my brand new role by pushing back against a dominant and deeply ingrained culture where homework = rigor and responsibility. 

School started, and I had no choice but to post my homework policy on the classroom blog. I referred to it as "do it yourself homework" and wrote the following:

Language Arts Homework

This year, we will implement the Daily 5, as our structure for the language arts classroom. The five daily activities for building strong basic literacy skills:
  • Read to Self
  • Read to Someone
  • Listen to Reading
  • Work on Writing
  • Word Work
Any of these activities are excellent practice for home, as well as school, and students are strongly encouraged to read and write regularly at home.Our language arts classroom this year will be holistic and personalized. Each student has different needs, interests and aptitudes. Each family also has different needs and rhythms.
Parent involvement in the development of literacy is invaluable. This can take many forms- from reading stories aloud to playing word games and puzzles to conversations about what each family member is reading. Students can work on blog posts at home, as well as taking time to read and comment on classmates’ blogs. After school might also be a good time to practice cursive writing or keyboarding skills.
Regular daily/weekly homework will not be assigned or collected. There will be times when, in order to meet class requirements or finish projects, students will have to continue working at home. In these instances, I will be happy to notify parents via email.
My fear, it seems, was largely unfounded. From the feedback I've received so far, our "do it yourself homework" is working out just fine. Maybe better than fine. I've actually been hugged in the hallways by more than one grateful parent! Students are excitedly talking about the books they're reading at home and several of them have become addicted to Words With Friends
And as an overwhelmed "new" classroom teacher, collecting and keeping up with everyone's homework is one thing I won't miss at all!

Building a Community of Readers, Writers & Thinkers

My mission as a 4th/5th grade language arts teacher this year is:
  • to motivate students to do and be their best
  • to build a safe, accepting and inclusive classroom community
  • to inspire each student’s love of reading, writing and words in a creative, student-centered learning environment
  • to be a role-model for lifelong-learning and an ethic of excellence 
Right now, after 13 years out of the classroom and a mind jammed with 13 years worth of ideas, that is proving to be a tall order. But every journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step. 
My first step toward building the community of readers, writers, thinkers and creators that I envision starts with building community.

So I have spent the first week of school trying to do just that. We have begun each day with a community circle where we share, listen to one another and review our classroom norms. The norms are the foundation, and they must be reviewed, modeled, lived and breathed.
An important part of our community is going to be having students do meaningful work in terms of documenting, creating and sharing our learning, our ideas and our 1:1 iPad pilot with the world.

The first "job" I introduced was "documentarian." The plan is for everyone to do the job the first time, and eventually, once all the roles are introduced and practiced, there will be some kind of rotation so that everyone gets a chance to try their hand at different ways of participating in and contributing to the community.

We used the Pic Collage app this week as our tool for documenting, and I gave the students free reign. I love their creative interpretations and the feedback it provided for me.














Wednesday, August 21, 2013

My "Classroom Theme" is Learning!

Earlier I shared my thoughts about conscious classroom design and the kind of learning environment I hoped to create in my classroom. Guided by our school's learning target, I have started off the school year with bare walls, no desks, as many books as I could gather, and different areas for different activities. The walls will be used to document collective knowledge and processes as well as to showcase student creations. 




Except for a few small challenges with space (I regularly move the tables back and forth away from the rug where we gather for community circle and direct instruction) and storage, I am pretty pleased with the results. 



Friday, August 16, 2013

Our Choice of Words

This is my review of the book Choice Words by Peter Johnston. Each teacher at our school was given a choice of books for summer reading as part of our ongoing professional development. I chose to read this book, as I had heard a lot about it and am always (obsessively?) interested in the development of literacy in all its dimensions.

Although Choice Words, by Peter Johnston, is ostensibly about basic (reading and writing) literacy, its message, about the language teachers use and how it shapes what students learn, is relevant for all teachers. We all use language as a primary shaper of classroom activities, environments and direct instruction. Some of the implications are subtle, but powerful.

For example, he talks about teachers' use of  the word "good" to describe readers and writers. This is something I've regularly done, trying to clarify for students what "good" readers and writers do as a means of giving direction (i.e.: these are the things we should all be doing when reading or writing). According to Johnston, use of the word "good" implies that some of the students in the class are those "good readers and writers," and, therefore, others in the class are not. He asks us to think about the subtle shift in intent that occurs by simply removing the word "good."
Here's an example. I like this poster that outlines the work of writing.

But after reading Choice Words, I would probably, if I were to use such a poster in my classroom, cover the word "good." We are all writers. These are the steps of writing. Do you see the difference? 

Ultimately, it comes down to a lot of thought about "who we are and what we are doing" because those thoughts that ground us and impact the way we teach and the language we use. We can't plan every linguistic interaction in advance, so we must have a pervasive sense of the work we're doing with students and the kinds of communities we hope to create. 


I thought the book was a worthwhile read. It validated my overall approach and  goals. If you are interested, but don't want to read the whole book, I would recommend reading the appendices at the end. In those, Johnston shares interviews with students from different classrooms talking about themselves and others as readers and writers. It is so telling to hear what they absorb  from subtle classroom messages, and it will really make you think (I think it could easily be applied to other subjects as well). 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

We're Going 1:1 with iPads- Here's Our App List

We (a team of teachers and coaches) have spent many hours meeting virtually and in-person to prepare for our 1:1 iPad pilot program for 4th and 5th grade. As I work at a private school, parents are required to purchase textbooks each year. We have requested that the iPad and apps be purchased by parents to replace most of the textbooks, which we will no longer be using.

I will be teaching language arts, but our students our fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from a team of specialized teachers. (As a teacher, I also feel fortunate to have the opportunity to focus on language arts which is my great love.)

I have set for myself many goals, but the most important one (at least for purposes of this blog) is this: I will regularly share my process. Each week I commit to sharing something- a lesson, a reflection...something I've seen, heard, thought, created, messed-up or otherwise learned in the classroom. The commitment to regular blogging is something I have always found challenging, and as such, I have neglected this important step in the "learn, reflect, share" process.

If I do share something helpful, something that inspires or resonates, something that requires clarification, etc. I would love to know that. I'm trying to get better at writing, creating and connecting.

So, without any further babble...I share with you our app list.



Friday, July 12, 2013

Writing Quality & Practice

"Practice makes perfect."
When I was a child and was told this, I never thought to question if "perfect" was, in fact, a reasonable goal. As an adult, I am certain that the idea of perfection is an obstacle to growth, learning and getting things done.

I'm thinking specifically about the teaching of writing. What are the right ratios of practice, guidance, and breaking the whole into parts?  If you've ever played a sport or an instrument, you know the importance of practice. Without regular practice, you are unlikely to improve. However, if all you do is practice, you may very well be practicing and learning in a way that is inefficient or incorrect. Regular guidance is just as important as regular practice.
Image Credit


One of my strongest beliefs as a teacher is that students need to write. Often. Students need to write for real communication, not only to satisfy teacher's goals, but to express, develop and understand their own ideas. With blogs giving us the ability to instantly publish, many teachers (and parents) fear letting their students (and themselves) look bad by publishing work that isn't "perfect."

I go back and forth. I have no problem letting kids write the way they write, up to a point. However, a person's writing should not stay the same over time. There should be growth, in both content and form.  And this is where teaching plays its role. This is also a great reason to have students blog.

I like Seth Godin's advice to "Write poorly. In Public. Every day."
Godin compares writing to talking and says that we are good at talking precisely because we do it freely and often. We never get "talker's block."
But are we really so good at talking? 
There are plenty of lazy talkers-- people with poor grammar and boring usage. Plenty of words that don't add anything to anything, that might be better left unspoken. Talk, unless recorded, is cheap. The words, once spoken float away with the breeze. Talk is easy, precisely because of its ephemeral nature. Writing has permanence. Writing is craft. It is meant to be edited, changed, suffered over and only then, read by another.

I edit my blog posts constantly. Almost every time I re-read one of my own posts, I notice something that seems awkward or a missing punctuation. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I don't post frequently. I worry over the words I use, the message I'm trying to convey.

I notice, too, that (as I learned on Sesame Street when I was little) everyone makes mistakes. Oh yes they do. It doesn't matter how educated the writer nor how many editors have proofed the article. Mistakes happen- in writing, in talking, in everything.

Here's my point- we learn by doing. We will make mistakes. Learning happens when we start making new (better?) mistakes. Students learn to write by writing. Writing matters. Please, let kids write and publish!