Thursday, April 17, 2014

Teacher Leadership and Improving Public Ed

Yesterday Real Clear Education published a piece on the use of teacher leadership.
With all the talk on the common core, closing the achievement gap and charter schools/vouchers teacher leadership often gets lost in the shuffle. National conversation turns to taking sides on education issues instead of talking about ways to actual change what happens within schools. 

Real Clear's commentary starts by noting what I believe is the number one problem with education: 
"Many agree: to improve public schooling in America, we must attract and retain more top performing teachers. It's well documented that not enough high-performing individuals - not enough who graduate in the top third of their college classes - enter the profession of teaching today. Of those talented individuals who do enter, far too many leave within five years, for reasons ranging from the lack of long term economic rewards to limited upward mobility. So how can we address issues of professional stagnation to recruit and retain great educators?"

The way to address this, it goes on to note is through teacher leadership- when mentor or leader teachers take time to work with new teachers to improve instruction. 
I've worked in two highly collaborative schools, though with different collaborative models. Both though gave us access to coaches or specialists. This had a huge impact on instruction, how we plan our lessons, view our students' progress and determine what to do for struggling and high achieving students. Those conversations with teacher leaders  aren't a punishment or an intervention for struggling teachers. It's a culture of collaboration that improves practice and in turn student achievement. 
The article goes on to say, "There is a risk in applying the blunt instrument of business school leadership lessons in the educational setting. We should stop calling teacher leadership "teacher leadership" and consider "peer influencer."

This too is true. To make meaningful connections and collaborative relationships teachers need peer influencers as opposed to leaders. Telling someone how to teach will not have the long lasting success of telling someone why to teach a certain way, how to improve instruction, and inspiring thoughtful conversations about improving practice.

I highly recommend reading the article because it brings up excellent points about the use of using teacher leaders in schools. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Best Parenting Book Yet

The day I left for maternity leave the third graders I work with gave me the best parenting advice book I've ever received. Each third grader filled out a page themselves, predicting the baby's birth date, weight, (which reflected some CRAZY understanding of weight...  I was not carrying a 30 pound baby in case any third graders are wondering...), a list of suggested names and then parenting advice for me and Mr. Lipstick as well as big sister advice for Little Lipstick, and one hope for the baby.

Best. Advice. Ever.

 "When your baby cry's a long time it means they are really hungry and wants milk, or needs to be changed."
Big sister advice: "When you carry her in your lap remember to hold her neck on both sides so when she grows up her neck will be normal."
 I need to know more. There is a story there about a parenting warning, an infant's neck, and a big sister.

Advice to us: "Feed stuff healthy"  Yes, yes, we will try.
Big sister advice: "Learn how to change her diaper".  Yes, please. 

Advice to us: "Make sure she does not put her hands in a power socket".  Excellent advice. 

 You know many of these have to come with a back story. "Hide your expensive stuff" either comes from a parent's warning or a very disappointing moment as an older sibling. These third graders have been around the block. They know what it's like to be the older one. I just wish I was there when they'd written these so I could dig deeper into what exactly happened in their lives to make them feel that this is the most important advice they need to give my daughter.

When she cries she needs food or a diaper change, feed her healthy food, no hands in the electric socket. I think they covered all the parenting basics.

This kid knows babies. 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Maternity Leave

I've been on maternity leave for two weeks now. I have a beautiful new daughter I love cuddling and loving on. And yet, I'm not good at maternity leave. I wouldn't give it up for anything and I know how important these early weeks are- I wouldn't change it- but I miss my kids!
I miss teaching. I miss thinking about teaching, strategizing how best to teach. I miss my coworkers. Mostly, I miss the kids. Feels a bit wrong to admit it when I am suppose to be cherishing every moment with my family. And I am cherishing the moments (well, most of them). But I still find myself thinking about school and the kids quite frequently.
It's good I miss it. If I didn't it would be time to think about leaving the classroom. Missing it is a reminder that I'm doing the right job. I will need to remember that when maternity leave is over and I switch from missing school kids to missing my family. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

One More Day

Life's been keeping me too busy to post lately with trying to wrap up my sub plans, get everything in order at school for someone else to step in, and of course, trying to get my house in order for the baby. Not to mention keeping up with an active toddler who is slowly being transitioned from the role of baby to big sister.
I've been exhausted and barely able to organize my thoughts. So tonight, the night before my last day of work, crept up on my much faster than I was prepared for.

We've had snow days for Monday and Tuesday this week, which means that the massive to-do list I gave myself 3 days today must now all be completed in one day, while also trying to say goodbye to the kids and attend all the meetings and lessons I normally would. I have a feeling I'll be there late tomorrow night.

It's weird to even think about "saying goodbye" to the kids. It's so far from the end of the year- they have so much work ahead of them- so much growth to come, achievements to accomplish, so much to learn- that it doesn't seem right that I'm walking away from them. We're in the trenches right now- past the January slump and getting ready to kick it into high gear for spring and I'm stepping away. It just feels wrong, like I am abandoning them.

This year was a strange one in my teaching career. I spent the summer getting excited about teaching my Intellectual Disabilities class again. After a year of doing something very new for me I was excited to have a year without a crazy steep learning curve. And then- a week into the school year my doctors put restrictions in place because of my pregnancy and I suddenly found myself NOT in my intellectual disabilities classroom I'd spent so much time setting up and planning for- but in another new position where I had another significant learning curve. Although I'd taught third grade remediation classes before, and coached third graders on my jump rope team, I didn't have much experience with them. Let alone third grade content. It's been a humbling year, and right as I feel like I've gotten into the swing of things I'm leaving.

The third graders I've worked with this year have come to hold a very special place in my heart. One of them in particular makes the "all time" list, with the likes of My BFF, Magical, My Smart Cookie and Rock Star. That's a hard list to make. But like all of them he taught me a lot about myself and teaching as much as I taught him anything. He's going through a rough patch right now and it's heart breaking to have to walk away.

I clearly wouldn't want it any other way. I'm excited to be about to welcome my second daughter into our home- can't wait to meet her, cuddle her and love on her (even with the lack of sleep in my future). But the nature of teaching makes maternity leave that much harder. Sure I'll miss my pay check and my adult conversations, but more than anything I'll miss the kids.

I want to be with these kids when they take their SOL tests for the first time. I want to help them through the next few months- the rough patches- the social misunderstandings- the difficult concepts in math- reading new books- learning how to identify the author's main idea. I want to see how it all ends.

More than anything I'm not prepared to say "goodbye" tomorrow. Although I'm not planning on coming back this school year I do hope to come back and visit and to keep in touch with the kids. For the first time in my life I wish we didn't have snow days so I could have had the beginning of this week to slowly wrap things up.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

How'd the baby get in there, anyway?

In exactly two weeks I will be starting my maternity leave. By this you can infer that I am currently very large.  And tired and uncomfortable. But mostly just large.

This largeness does not go unnoticed by the students I work with.

Although the comments, particularly from children with autism have been going on all year, but now that I seem to be expanding daily, AND the students know that I'll be leaving soon the comments, concerns and questions are amplifying.
~~  ~~
"Why do you keep your baby in your belly?"  (From a third grader with autism)
~~  ~~
Another third grader:  So how do you get the baby out?
Me: I'll go to the doctor and they'll deliver the baby.
Him: How do they deliver it? They put it in a box and mail it to the hospital and give it to you like delivering a package?
Me:  That word deliver makes it sound like that huh? Let's get back to work...
~~  ~~
I went to pick up a kindergarten student today for reading group. This was only the second time he was in my group and I guess the first time he didn't notice my large belly. His class was working quietly at reading workshop and I was trying my best to get him and his reading group out of the classroom without disruption. Yet the poor boy couldn't take his eyes off my belly. "Why is your belly so big?" he asked me loudly. When I gave him the quiet signal and pointed toward the door to indicate that he should line up he turned to his friends."Why is her tummy so large? Is her belly big? What's wrong with it?"
I can only imagine the horror he was going through trying to figure out why a teacher would walk around with such a large belly.

At the end of reading group, his eyes still glued to my stomach he asked, "Why did you want to put a baby in your belly?"

~~  ~~
"Mrs. Lipstick, when you're baby comes can I be your respite care baby sitter?"
I'm totally touched that this third grade boy would offer, and I do love that he called it respite care. But no. Not going to be the baby sitter.

~~  ~~
I'm starting to think that teachers should be granted maternity leave months before the baby is born so we don't have to handle these awkward social questions.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Kindergarten Too Easy?

There have been a lot of articles and blog posts lately about how kindergarten is the new first grade based off a working paper coming out of UVA. In 11 years of teaching I can verify this. When I began teaching I was a first grade classroom teacher. The same lessons we did in first grade are now being taught in kindergarten. So, yes, this revelation doesn't surprise me. I've certainly seen it myself.

Another study due to be published in the American Education Research Journal does not contradict this, but still says that kindergarten is actually too easy. You read about the article here, on the Education Week blog. The study shows that children learn more when they are introduced to more academic concepts- instead of simply teaching letters and numbers teachers should be teaching the sounds that correspond with the letters and addition concepts. The study states that most kindergartners come in already knowing what is taught in kindergarten and are ready for something harder. Those who don't come in with the background knowledge needed learn the basic concepts while learning the advanced information.

I'm torn on how I feel about this stance. First of all, I agree with the concept. When we "teach up" kids do tend to learn more, often because we are giving more meaning behind the basic, rote concepts we want them to learn. This is why I saw so much progress in my intellectual disabilities class last year. Not knowing another way to teach I simply taught the class the way I would run a general education classroom- and the kids responded by soaking it all in.

Of course this also had to be paired with differentiation. I couldn't assume that just because I was teaching high frequency words in connection with letters and letter sound when we did word wall work that they would automatically know the information. I still had to provide small group work and individual, direct instruction that worked on basics like what is a word vs a letter, or even what is a picture vs a letter. While the children benefited from being exposed to the more academic content they wouldn't have gotten anything if they hadn't also had the information paired with instruction at their individual level. This takes a lot of time and flexibility throughout the day, and a lot of pre-planning on how to daily make sure everyone is getting the exact instruction they need. I believe it is how every classroom should be, but I also recognize the difficulty of putting it in place. It was hard.

In saying kindergarten is too easy the study focuses on the academic tasks the children are learning, but not the social, emotional development or the learning to learn behaviors that we need for children to have to be successful in school. Now that I have my own daughter I watch with amazement as she soaks up information that I think of as a kindergarten skill. She's learning at an incredible rate (which I also assume is completely normal, just incredible to me, her mother). So I can see how parents begin to worry that their child will be bored if they come into kindergarten already reading.

I can see that we are capable of cramming our kindergarten day with reading, writing and math and having very academically capable kids come out on the other side. But we also have to remember that these children are five and six. While I believe they are perfectly capable of learning the information (and should be exposed to the information) I don't think this should be a prescription for drill-and-kill activities or to pack the day with academics leaving no time for play.

Play and learning can be embedded together in a way that gives more meaning to the learning while engaging the children where they are. And in my personal experience, what children learn through play seems to stick in their memory a lot longer than what they learned through straight lessons.

As a first grade teacher I'd watch the children come in from different kindergarten teachers. One teacher in particular was always a teacher I enjoyed getting children from. Her students came in with a love of books. They knew how to sit on the carpet and shared with each other without my intervention. They loved school and came in ready to learn every day. The teacher was known as being a a more play-based classroom and the children didn't always end kindergarten with the best test scores. But she'd given them a huge base for first grade and they typically soared to the top of the class once I had them. Because I didn't have to spend time reminding them how to sit on the carpet, how to work independently or how to share the crayons they were ready for all the academic requirements of first grade.

I suppose my thoughts on the study can be wrapped up in the simple phrase of "don't throw the baby out with the bathwater".  Yes, we can increase our instruction and expectations in kindergarten- but let's not do it at the harm of the children.

How can we teach smarter? How can we put creativity and play into academic concepts? How can we take a good book and connect all of our standards (and beyond) to it in order to engage the children? How can we use good classroom structure to differentiate for our students?

It's easy to read the article and decide that kindergarten is too easy and should look more rote- children in desks- more teacher directed lessons- but I caution us from taking that angle. What can we do to increase our academic expectations while keeping true the fact that we are teaching five and six year olds?

My other thoughts on the article are:
1) I've worked in 3 schools and none of them have simple taught numbers and letters. All of them presented kindergartens with high academic expectations. I realize I work in a very good school district, but I am saddened to think of kindergartens out there that wouldn't teach reading.

2) What about the children who do not come in with those skills? There are two different types of children who come in lacking basic kindergarten skills. One is a set of students whose families read to them, played with them, had resources (even though very limited) to expose them to different opportunities. Families who talked to them but never thought to teach their children their letters and numbers. The other type of student is from a family in significant poverty who struggles to survive. The families share apartments with other families, the children rarely go outside their apartment because of safety concerns. The families may work multiple jobs, children may only eat once a day, and they don't have resources to expose their children to much outside their homes.
In my current school I see a lot of the children in the first category. The children are picking up skills fast even though they came in with little. In my former school I saw children in the second category. They were from families who were from such significant poverty that school was often the first time they had seen their name in print. Their parents were illiterate and their homes (that I was often in for home visits) had almost no print other than what was on food wrappers. Those children require a lot more intervention and intense differentiated instruction to make up for lost time than the ones who simply hadn't been told the names of the letters.
Of course these children benefit from high expectations and being exposed to the higher academics all kindergartners should be exposed to. But we can't just teach and hope they will catch up. They may need intense intervention, lessons re-taught, and a chance to get a firm foundation so that they have something to build the rest of their academic career on.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Understanding the Deeper Meaning Behind "Thank you, Mr. Falker"

One of my favorite books of all time is Thank you, Mr. Falker by Patricia Palocco. In fact, at the 2012 National Book Festival I was able to shake Patricia Palacco's hand and tell her that this was the book that made me want to be a special education teacher. I love the book and I love reading it with students to watch them either connect with the text or grapple with the concept of what it means to be smart and dumb.*

     This year I read it with my third grade lunch-bunch/book club. One of the students in this group is a child with autism. Like many children with autism he is a very literal thinker. Only a few pages into the book he was going crazy with how "dumb" Tricia, the main character is. "Why doesn't she just try harder?" he exclaimed with frustration. "Stop drawing and start working! If I was her father I wouldn't let her draw anymore, I'd lock her in her room until she started reading!"

No matter what I said to him, or what his sympathetic peers said to him, we couldn't convince him that Tricia wasn't dumb just because she couldn't read. One third grader even got into the concept of right brain and left brain and how people have different strengths but he wouldn't let it go. "Whatever," he replied, "My brain doesn't work like that. Everyone just has one brain and it's either smart or dumb."

I think I died a little inside.

I'm also a huge fan of the book Mindset by Carol Dweck, and my school has put a significant emphasis on adapting the culture of Mindset into our daily work. We actively work on embedding Dweck's theory into our routines, our teacher language, and how we talk to kids about their work. Most of our students get embrace the culture.

My friend that day did not. In fact he was so upset about the book he told me he didn't want to come to lunch bunch with me anymore if we were going to read a book about "dumb kids". This kills me because it is a conversation we need to keep having, especially to encourage empathy with the other friends in the class. I have a feeling we will be building slow, baby steps towards breaking down the black or white thinking around intelligence, but I'm determined we can get there. More open and honest conversations about books- more character talks- more books with surprising twists to character development- but we can do it.

Any recommendations?
My moment with Patrica Palacco

*If you aren't familiar with the story it is about a young girl who loves to draw but struggles with reading. She tries to hide her reading difficulties but she believes she is dumb because of them. Once a teacher intervenes and helps her read and begins to see herself as a reader. The best part? (spoiler alert?) The ending reveals that it is a true story about Patricia Palacco herself. I love watching children's faces when they realize that it's true.

Organized Chaos

A think tank focused on creative solutions for future problem solvers -tree