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 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!