Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Out of the Mouths of Babes

One of our third grade teachers asked students to write their feelings about our state-wide test, the FCAT, in their journals. One student's comment stood out. She wrote:

It feels like a storm has been chasing me. I am just plain nervous.

We really DO make every effort to help our students not stress about this test. We try to keep it fun and remind them that they just need to "show what they know". Still, there are pressures from everywhere. And in our state, third graders who do not "pass" will be retained. It's scary.

I am all about asking kids to think deeply when they read. I agree that we only scratch the surface of critical thinking on most days. I also think many kids ARE capable of more than the output they give. But, to quote my principal, "At what expense?"

As we seek rigor and alignment in our classrooms, are we adding too much to the pressure cooker that dwells inside each of our students' minds? Do we help them with coping strategies? Do we remind them that good thinking is simply what a person "should" do and really has little to do with the test or its outcome? Do we remind them every single day that they ARE important no matter what a number on a test says about them?

The truth is, if we asked most teachers how they feel about testing, they may answer just the same as this little girl:

It feels like a storm has been chasing me. I am just plain nervous.

At least the ones that I work with WANT their children to do their best work. They believe in our kids. And they know that this one little blip on the radar screen of life does not define who you are or what you'll become.

I'm hoping for calm weather as we take this test. I'm trusting that our teachers and our students truly have done their best teaching and learning. And I know it will all be OK.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Wordless Wednesday---Sort Of...

My colleagues and I wrote a song to High School Musical's "What Time Is It?" to help motivate our kids for their upcoming FCAT test. It mushroomed into quite a production complete with video. I'm hoping to get it up on Teacher Tube or You Tube to share. I was able to recruit my son and his friend to help us out. I love it when people work together to make school a little more exciting for kids. It makes me sure that there is plenty RIGHT with public education!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

They're Compliant, Yes,...but are they ENGAGED?

Several years ago I worked as a Summer School Literacy Coach. It was my job to train teachers who were going to be working with some of our most striving learners in reading best-practices and then be available to work with them side-by-side in their classrooms throughout the summer. I was new to the district in which I was working and found myself surrounded by many veteran teachers.

Most of the teachers I worked with that summer were quite willing to listen and implement some of the current reading strategies---even if they were coming from a “young teacher”. They had to keep the kids for five hours, and only do reading, so they were hungry for activities that would sustain these youngsters. There was one, however, who made it quite clear to me at the outset that she’d never taught any different for 30 plus years and really had no intention of doing so that summer either.

Prior to starting summer school, we conducted a HUGE literacy center workshop complete with make and take opportunities so teachers had some “tricks” in their bags to help students practice and apply reading skills and strategies. We focused on those centers that regenerate themselves and require little or no effort on the teacher’s part. One of these centers was “Read the Room”, where students use unique pointers to wander about a print-rich classroom and practice reading the walls.

Not too long into our summer adventure, many of the teachers with whom I worked were happily implementing the centers and strategies we discussed in our introductory in-service.

Imagine my surprise when one day I arrived on campus and the “conscientious objector” excitedly pulled me into HER classroom to see her students practicing their literacy skills. Feeling quite proud (and perhaps a bit cocky) that “I had broken through to this staunch critic” I excitedly entered the room. What I saw next, couldn’t have snapped me back to reality any faster.

The children, twenty 2nd graders, were lined up in rows. They all had a basal textbook open on their desk. Their hands were folded neatly on their books. Their eyes were facing the chalkboard and the teacher perched on a stool at the front of the room. Norman Rockwell would have loved this picture, I am sure, as it screamed “turn-of-the-century” American classroom. The teacher excitedly tapped me on the shoulder and said, “See?” I looked in the direction that she pointed and I still found myself questioning just what the commotion was all about.

There, in the corner of her room, I saw one little girl, meekly walking with a large pointer in her hand, mumbling something barely audible to any of the rest of us. The teacher smiled a HUGE “I-did-it” smile and said, “See, I’m doing what you said, we’re reading the room!”

She was so proud that she’d “given in” to one of the strategies we’d suggested. She’s right that ONE child was, I think, reading the room. But she just didn’t get it! One of the key points of the whole in-service was total class engagement. I’m pretty sure she missed that part.

It’s a picture I will never forget. I wanted to tell her “NO! You don’t get it!” I wanted to take over the class and show her how to reach into the emptiness that was on almost every face at every desk. But, you see, she “had a good class”. They were sweet boys and girls who were willing to sit obediently while one child roamed the room trying to read the print. They even obediently raised their hands when the girl was done and asked to be “next”. She thought she “had them” and was doing the right thing.

Let’s face it, “in her day”, that would have been considered a good teacher. She had control. Children were behaving. No one was up and moving around. Had a principal walked into that room 30 years ago, and even in some places today, he or she might have said, “Way to go, Mrs. B!”

I fear that too often we “miss it” though. We miss those opportunities to engage our students…really engage them. Instead, we settle for compliance. And the more I ponder it; the more I really let my mind wrap around it, I am certain that deep learning that lasts is found when the learner is totally engaged. It’s messy. It’s social. It requires kids to take risks. It is not “top-down” but “side-by-side” learning and doing.

It should be the goal of each educator to “go for that place” each and every day with each and every student. I am reminded of the motto of our district at the time this incident took place: “Every Child, Everyday, Whatever it Takes!” What could be more clear than that?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Valentines...Some things never change

It's the end of testing week (well, the first round anyway) here in our state and tomorrow's a teacher work day. Kids are excited that they get a four day weekend and that today is Valentines Day.

Last night while filling out cards with my own third grader, I was reminiscing about my own Elementary School days. And I realized that some things ARE still the same. Oh the cards are more elaborate than ever. I mean thirty years ago ours just had pictures and a little sentiment on them. Theirs have punch outs, stick-ons, and all sorts of doo-dads to make them more exciting. But despite the intricate design, the heart of the day is still similar.

So what is the same?
  • We still allow kids to exchange them in school

  • Kids still share candy on this day

  • The little sweet hearts are still around

  • They still don't like giving a card to the "kid they don't like" even when the teacher says each person must give a card to everyone

  • There are still young romances that "pop up" around this date

  • Teachers still "lighten the load" a bit on these days

  • Kids and teachers still smile and delight in this simple exchange

So much in our system has increased in complexity since "my days". Sometimes it makes me downright SAD!

I, for one, am glad that there ARE still those simple moments of joy in the classroom....even if I have to look harder to FIND them!

Friday, February 08, 2008

What's it all about, Alfie?

{Note: This post was originally added to my personal blog last year and I have decided to share it over here as well. The reason it came to mind again today is because I learned that a Kindergarten student at my school lost his Mother to murder this week. It reminds me of many stories of struggle and tragedy that our students face.}

When I was little, I took piano lessons. I hated practicing songs that I didn't know. I remember when my Mom bought me a book that was simple versions of "songs from the 70's". I learned to play this song titled, "What's It All About, Alfie?"

This morning I found myself humming it...as moment by moment at school revealed more and more horrible things. We were informed that a student would have to be tested one on one today. It seems this 12-year-old youngster was arrested last week on sexual battery charges on another student at my school!! Then another person came in and told us there was a second student being investigated on ANOTHER sexual battery charge in a totally unrelated incident. And if that wasn't enough, the Department of Children and Families is investigating two different families on horrific charges of child abuse.

THEY ARE KIDS!! Or are they?

This boy is 12 years old. His mug shot is on the police website for his arrest. Anyone can see it. The girl may attend our school as well. And I ask myself HOW does this happen?

I live in a relatively affluent city. Most of our schools are filled with upper middle class to the rich and wealthy kids. There are pockets, however, of total poverty here. My school represents one of those pockets. Many of our kids go home and don't always know where their next meal is coming from, where their parents are, and where they will sleep at night. Some learn crime from their older siblings, parents, and neighbors. Many have at least one parent who is incarcerated. Some have parents who speak little or no English. They simply came here looking for something better than they had in their country and they are doing the best they can to make their way in this place.

Regardless, the state testing continues. I get angry when I contrast the many children at my school who are sitting hungry, lonely, afraid and angry, in front of test booklets they cannot read today with those students in other schools across the city whose major concern is that they didn't get BOTH $180 pair of jeans this past weekend. It's true. Yet, those are the stories that no paper and pencil test results reveal.

They never have and they never will.

So, today, I find myself humming...."What's it all about?????" I don't know WHO Alfie is...or was...but when I looked at the lyrics this morning to see why this song was coming to my mind...I was a bit stunned:

What's it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What's it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?
Are we meant to take more than we give
or are we meant to be kind?
And if only fools are kind, Alfie,
then I guess it's wise to be cruel.
And if life belongs only to the strong, Alfie,
what will you lend on an old golden rule?
As sure as I believe there's a heaven above, Alfie,
I know there's something much more,
something even non-believers can believe in.
I believe in love, Alfie.
Without true love we just exist, Alfie.
Until you find the love you've missed you're nothing, Alfie.
When you walk let your heart lead the way
and you'll find love any day, Alfie, Alfie.
May we all find a way to reach out and extend love to someone less fortunate than us this week. May we learn to reach across racial and ethnic boundaries. May we find a way to bring light into darkness; love where there's hatred; hope where there's despair. After all, "without true love we just exist, Alfie...Until you find the love you've missed you're nothing, Alfie!"

And, THAT'S what it's all about!!

Thursday, February 07, 2008


Here's a "project" that I am working on at school.

First I want to share a little history. Here's a picture of Ms. Ineeda Word (Me) in our "Jungle" several years ago. She's on the right side pictured with Professor Sayit Clearly (a 4th Grade Colleague) and Granny Write (My Assistant Principal). Here are Ms. Ineeda Word and the Professor with Captain Wanna Write (Our Math Coach--in camo) and Captain Hook (my Principal). We are looking at good "Hooks" in student writing.
We had a great time each week talking about what good writers do. But like every good show, that one ran it's course. We were on for two years here at my school and figured it was time for a new "gimmick".

Our Jungle morphed into our school's Jungle Book set for last year's school-wide play:

Sooooo...this year we introduced the "Fab Five Farm" based on the "Fab Five Elements" of good Reading instruction: Phonics, Phonemic Awareness, Vocabulary, Fluency and Comprehension.

And HEEEERE are the first two characters on the Farm:Reada Reada Pumpkin Reader (Me) and Ms. Sadie the Cowgirl from Tennessee (My Friend D). We talked about how to choose a book that is "just right" and now give tips that good readers use when they read books. The kids and teachers love it. Recently "Cousin Cletus" joined us. He loves to talk about eating at the Waffle House.

Now we hear that Pa Pumpkin and Ma Pumpkin and possibly Ms. Reada's little brother "Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater" might be on...

It's all for the cause...So, I'll leave you with Mrs. Reada's poem:
Reada Reada Pumpkin Reader Had a book that wouldn't teach her She learned to pick a book just right And now she reads both day and night!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Book Review: Schooled

I picked this book up quite by fluke recently and have to say it was a fun distraction for me! This book is published by Hyperion Books and is geared for the middle school crowd.

You might be asking yourself just HOW it fell into my hands? A couple of weeks ago, I was headed to the gym and looking for another book I am currently reading to while away the minutes on the ellipticle. I couldn't find the current title, so I picked this book up from a pile of potential reads that I've made for my DS 3 (an 8th grader).

I am really trying to "up" my knowledge of books for teens and tweens as I am excellent in the picture book arena, but seriously lacking the minute you move to chapter books.

Schooled is a book written about a 13 year-old boy, Capricorn Anderson, who has been raised by his Grandmother who is a hippie "stuck in the 60's". She is still living alone in a former commune and has home-schooled her grandson as she sheltered him from the world. The story takes place as she is injured and he's suddenly thrust into a local middle school and experiences total culture shock because his hippie lifestyle collides with that of eighth graders in 2007. It is a very realistic look into the culture and "pecking order" that exists for students in middle school and deals with bullying and peer pressure quite well.

Throughout the story is woven the important message of being true to yourself. Ultimately, I think you could sum up Cap Anderson (and this book) in one Beatles' song phrase: "All You Need Is Love".

(Note: I think this book is totally appropriate for kids who are mature fourth graders through middle school. It is definitely a fun read and may prepare them for what life is like in grades 6-8.)

Monday, January 28, 2008

They Announced It Today...

The reading series we're going to use for the next five years in our district was announced today. I think though, that the state of education almost demands that we define ourselves by the programs we teach. In our state, it is required that we use a program that is "Scientifically Based Reading Research." I always hate this time because I really would rather teach kids than programs. And I'd like to believe that every teacher in every classroom wants to do the same. But I don't.

And as much as I'd like to believe that every teacher (particularly at Elementary) would make educated instructional decisions for EACH and EVERY child in his or her classroom, the truth is some don't. So, in my opinion, we "idiot proof" those who choose not to think deeply about their students and individualize their instruction by giving them programs that require little, if any, decision-making. And by doing so, in some ways, we may water down those who used to trust their professional judgment.

Don't get me wrong. I don't hate programs. I only hate it when we, as educators, move mindlessly through them like we believe that some publisher somewhere knows and understands the students who sit before us each and every day. There's nothing wrong with research or even most research-based programs. They are tools. Resources. They should be one of many things we have in our repertoire.

When I teach kids, I teach THEM. If it's with the program, great. If the program doesn't have what they need at a particular point in time, I find what they need. I make no apologies. I am their teacher. It's what I am paid to do.

What do you do when it comes to determining what materials and resources to use with your students?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

I KNOW You're Out There...

I keep telling myself, "there ARE teacher bloggers out there" and I believe me! But the truth is, I spend more time honing and posting to my personal family blog than I do this one. If you want to find teachers, then you probably need to post more often, right?

So here I am.

It's time to begin again. I'm hoping to add more regularly as I share reflections from the education front. What's going on in my "school world"?

We are preparing for our state test, the FCAT. This means we will begin our seven week Saturday School for third through fifth graders. they have the "opportunity" to come for an additional three hours on Saturdays to hone their Math, Reading, Writing and Science skills and strategies.

Actually we really try and make it a "camp-like" atmosphere and take the boring work out of it. Most kids really do enjoy their time there.

Does it help? Since our scores go up each year and our kids are coming to us more deficits each year, I'd say it's an important piece of the puzzle. The key is that this is but ONE piece as there are so MANY ways we support kids and their learning.

So we're off to another test prep season. What's happening in your neck of the woods?