Thursday, January 22, 2015

Taking Instructional Risks

Every afternoon when I pick up my fourth grade reading group I'm met by one student's question, "Are we going to get to write our own play today?" 
And every afternoon my answer is, "Not today."

In December I did Readers' Theater with the group and was blown away by how it motivated them to work, especially one student. This student is usually difficult to keep on task but in this case he was working ridiculously hard. He was so excited by the assignment that the one day when I couldn't pick up the group he convinced his teacher to let them sit in the hallway and practice the play together. Fabulous, right? At the end of the whole experience he asked me if they could do another play, but one about super heroes. Since I don't actually have a play about super heroes I said sure, as long as they wrote it themselves. I told him if he brought me a play he'd written we could put it on, as long as it was appropriate.

So far he hasn't brought me a play he has written, but he is begging to write it in class. He's clarified with me what is appropriate ("Laser beams, Mrs. Lipstick, are they OK? Like, if you use laser beams to blow someone up? No? OK, well what if you use them to cook a hot dog. OK?"), has asked his peers what parts they want to be and what should happen in the play. I am dying to sit down and write this play with him because the amount of teachable moments could be amazing. It would hit so many of the instructional objectives of what he needs to learn.

Except there is no time.

The reading group is significantly below grade level. I read with them for 30 minutes a day, four days a week. I already feel guilty for spending time in December on Readers Theater, even though they all needed to work on their fluency and reading familiar texts helped with that.

Everyone in the group is also an English Language Learner and is participating in an alternative portfolio assessment to the state testing. In a lot of ways this is great, except that it takes so long to complete each work sheet for this portfolio that there is barely time to actually teach the kids to read, let alone let them write a play for fun.

The teacher in me is dying inside. The necessary evil of the portfolio assessment aside, I'm torn between the need to get the students to read, read, read to improve their reading level and the need to let them write and perform a play- which they would probably get more out of academically than anything I could actually teach. Sadly, there just isn't time. First priority is the portfolio assessment, which we are woefully behind on because the student motivation is so lacking that it takes almost two group sessions to collect one worksheet. The next priority (which should be the first priority) is to get them to do some serious reading so they can make a year's growth (ideally more). 

The group has even asked if they can have lunch with me to write the play. I'm dying inside when I say no, they can't because I'm working with other students during their lunch time. These fourth grade students who are below grade level want to give up their lunch time to write. 

I have to somehow find a balance between their motivation and what we need to do in the little time we have. It feels horribly unfair to me that these students do not get to participate in creative academic tasks because they are so below grade level, when if I let them participate in the creative tasks they could possibly make more academic growth. It's the possibility word in that sentence that's the problem. Giving them the time it takes to write the play is a risk of losing valuable instructional time. What if it doesn't help their growth? Every moment I have with this group is so valuable I can't waste it. How do I decide to use each precious minute?


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Cold Feet

"Mrs Lipstick," a boy in the intellectual disabilities program asked me in hushed dismay, "where are your socks?"

I looked down at my cute black Steve Madden slip on flats that really just made my outfit and silently debated whether or not to explain my fashion choices to the concerned fifth grade boy. Was there anything I could say to begin to give wearing shoes without socks in January any validity?

"I don't know," I admitted. "My feet are cold."

"Yeah," he agreed. "Mine aren't." He pointed to his feet, snug inside their socks and tennis shoes. He went back to work, leaving me to ponder my own common sense. 

It's the little moments that make me love my job. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

What's the goal- perfect looking or perfect learning opportunity?

Today was a snow day. (Withhold judgement on whether or not it should have been a snow day. There isn't anything we can do to change it, and playing Monday morning quarterback with school cancelation decisions is getting old.)  So I was home with my girls, who are now three and ten months. I'm tired, but that should go without saying.

While the ten month old napped the three year old and I got busy with some art projects I'd seen on Facebook that morning- an entire Buzzfeed list of cool projects you can make with toilet paper rolls.

Here's the first one we tried:
Tube BinocularsThat's the picture from the article. Pretty, right? Little Lipstick declared she wanted to make them. Now, let's take a minute to think about what that would entail to make with a three year old.
Yeah.
Here she is with the glitter glue, making her own version:
Note the random mounds of glitter on the mainly brown tubes. Yeah. She LOVES them. The neighbors are going to complain that she's spying on them.

Then there were the animals. Oh my goodness the picture of these are so cute. It's no wonder Little Lipstick wanted to make them.

Farm Animals

Here's what we made:
 Her pig. She wanted orange legs. And four eyes. I took the picture before she put on the other eyes.
My creations are on the right, hers on the left. She made the BIG face for her sheep and colored in it herself, I did the cutting. She is so proud of her big faced sheep. Let's be honest- I am too.

There was a minute early on when we sat down with the glitter pens when I thought the binoculars could still be pretty. As I watched her throw down glitter with wreckless abandon I realized I needed to quickly make a few decisions-
1) Was I doing these crafts for her or me?
2) What did I want her to get out of this activity? After the art work is thrown away what will my daughter take from the hour of art we have on this snowy morning?

The answers, I realized were:
 1) For her, obviously. Although that's easy to say, but not as easy to follow through on. Am I thinking of the facebook or blog post I'll share about her work? It would be easy to forget that I'm doing the craft for her- not for me to share on Facebook, silently bragging about what an awesome mommy I am. (We'll ignore the fact that I'm writing about it now, OK?)
2) The objective is to learn to have an idea of a project you want to create and then to follow through with it. The objective of these art activities is not to create the perfect farm animals, or pinterest-worthy binoculars. It was for her to feel proud of herself for doing a craft, to feel capable of doing a craft, and to know that you can set a goal and follow steps to meet it. Oh yeah, and have fun. That too.

So, in the words of the all-knowing Elsa, I let it go. Tonight as we were saying our prayers she said, "I had a fun day, Mommy. I love you."

Who needs to post crafts on pinterest anyway?



Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Why the idea "Differentiation Doesn't Work" Doesn't Work

Ed Week published Differentiation Doesn't Work last week, which has shown up all over my Feedly and Facebook feed. Just the title itself is jarring and causes a double takes as it goes against so much of what we are being taught. The sentence that keeps getting quoted is, "It seems to me that the only educators who assert that differentiation is doable are those who have never tried to implement it themselves: university professors, curriculum coordinators, and school principals." 

I can imagine this would be a very popular thought. If true- if differentiation doesn't work and it's being shoved onto teachers by those who have never done it- then the game just changed. Teachers can be excused from the expectation of providing differentiation, and can actually be angry about being asked to do it. Not having to provide differentiation makes lives easier. 

Except I can't agree with this at all. 

 The biggest problem is that I don't agree with their definition of differentiation. They write:



• It (differentiation) seeks to determine what students already know and what they still need to learn.
• It allows students to demonstrate what they know through multiple methods.
• It encourages students and teachers to add depth and complexity to the learning/teaching process.

I'd agree with the first and third bullet. For the first, that's what I thought teaching was. If it isn't then I've been doing something wrong. If I don't know what the student knows and needs to know then I'm not sure how I am supposed to do my job. For the third bullet, sure, that's great. I'm not quite sure what they are saying there, but there is nothing wrong with depth and complexity as long as you are constantly going back to the first bullet. Is what you are doing working? Are the students learning? If not, then do you need to get more complex or less complex? What can you change?


The second bullet I believe is referring to learning styles, which have been proved time and time again to be a myth. However, it is hard to say they don't work. They do work, if only because the repetition used when teachers use them is often beneficial to students. They may be a waste of time because teachers could use a more effective method, but there is a reason we believed in them for so long. 


Taking out the learning styles, I believe that differentiation is teaching so that you are constantly adding growth to all students, taking them from wherever they are and moving them forward. Telling teachers that differentiation doesn't work is a dangerous slope.



1) It works. And it isn't that difficult. 
I've used differentiation time and time again in my classrooms. I never once thought it didn't work. I've always wondered why teachers felt it was so hard to implement. It doesn't have to be overly difficult or taxing. It's often a matter of asking thoughtfully tiered questions during focus lessons that drive home the different skills one wants to teach to each group. Or providing open-ended tasks that allow students to approach the assignment at their level. Making three types of similar worksheets- a reteach, a grade level, and a challenge- so that the students are all practicing what they need to practice. Teachers who set up their classrooms in the beginning of the year to provide structures that allow for differentiation will find that it comes seamlessly throughout the year.

2) Not differentiating is predetermining what students will do well and which will fail.
If schools don't differentiate, the alternative is to assign students to tiered classes based on their abilities. This is extremely unfair to the students, and sets us back in closing the achievement gap. Setting up classes based on abilities does not allow students to grow from one ability set to another. It limits the exposure the students in the "lower" groups have to higher level thinking tasks, and removes them from the peer models who are accessing these tasks. Schools will limit a student's ability and opportunities in life by boxing them in. Often a student's language level and socio-economic status will contribute to a student's current ability, but those background factors do not predict future ability. Given the right supports and opportunities students grow. Students meet our expectations. If we limit what we give our students and our expectations for them then we are limiting how high our students can succeed.

3) Students grow and change.
In my current school we are constantly grouping and regrouping our students based on their needs. The grade level team meets with the reading and math specialist every six weeks to look at every student's progress and re-assess the small groups. After being at the school for three years I have seen this be extremely powerful. The students are exposed to the same expectations regardless of their ability during whole group lessons, but are also provided small group instruction based on their current performance. This small group is only for six weeks where the student is given the targeted instruction he needs. After six weeks the student's needs are re-assessed. Students are constantly changing. Their educational growth has spikes, plateaus, and dips, and being flexible as a teacher allows us to meet the student's needs at any given time. Under this model I have watched student after student be exited from special education because of the growth they have made. Students labeled as having disabilities have proven that the disabilities do not impair their ability to work on grade level when they are given the instruction they need.

4) We've lost sight of the outcome.
What do we want from our schools? If we are working on passing tests and nothing more, then yes, putting students inside tracked classes that remain set are a good way to go. We can focus on test prep and learning material that will move students towards passing the tests to the best of their ability. This method forgets that we are looking at creating citizens who will one day run our country. We are not just prepping students to pass a test. We need to give our students every opportunity to succeed. Are we teaching all of our students to be problem solvers, capable of challenging themselves, overcoming obstacles, working independently and in groups, and being motivated learners? All of those skills can be taught in a differentiated classroom, along side the knowledge needed to pass tests.

Perhaps instead of throwing differentiation out the window we need to look at the support we are providing teachers to help them differentiate. Do they have the resources they need to make it work? Are we hiring quality teachers who see differentiation as valuable? Do teachers have time to build quality lessons and reflect with their colleagues on how to reach all their students?


Thursday, January 8, 2015

Delights of a Children Museum


Pulling a lever to start a ball down a maze
Over break my family and I went to the Pittsburgh Children's Museum. My poor husband had to drag both me and my toddler screaming from the building when it was time to go. After spending hours there we still hadn't seen or done everything there was to do. We live about four hours away from Pittsburgh and I'm already plotting a trip back just for the museum. Every exhibit was differentiated for different ages so that my three year old could find a way to make each one meaningful to her, while working beside a ten year old who was also having a meaningful experience. Well designed, open-ended, differentiated experiences, just the way we hope our schools could be. 

The workshop table. 
The first room we went to was the work shop, which devoted a large table to a recycling craft center. Bins filled with cardboard boxes, toilet paper rolls, and paper begged for children to come use their imagination to create something from what would otherwise be trash. Scissors, string and an array of different colored masking tape were set out so that they'd be at the young creators' finger tips. To me, the open ended creativity this encouraged was the most valuable from this workshop. The exhibit (if you could call it that) was inviting enough to make you want to sit down and get to work on a creation- any creation- without giving you a sense of one right way to complete the task, or an expectation to do something perfectly. Kids leaving the building were proudly carrying cardboard constructions of- well, I have no idea, but I'm sure they could have told me in great detail if I asked.

The whole exhibit reminded me a lot of my own childhood, to be honest. My mother encouraged us to do the same sort of open-ended creations. Shoe boxes became doll houses, pieces of cardboard because board games, car race tracks, and boats. As a child I remember being extremely excited whenever anyone in my family got new shoes, because it meant I got the box. I would be filled with angry disappointment if we bought shoes at a place like TJ Max that gave you shoes without the box. How dare they? Don't they know all of the possibilities just waiting inside that cardboard? I had an entire doll house made out of nothing but reclaimed recycling. It had three wings and every time I got another shoe box the family got another room for their house.

The museum reminded me of that childhood wonder, and the amount of time I spent tinkering with open ended creative projects. I went home and dedicated a plastic storage box to my daughter's own creations. I'm slowly filling it with empty toilet paper rolls, the more interesting boxes from Christmas presents, and other various items otherwise headed for the trash. She's only three but she already loves running to it to work on her art.

On the wall of the workshop was a hands-onpolling system. Sadly my picture didn't come out very well so you can't see what the labels on the tubes, but they say things like, "Tried something new", "Did something I didn't think I could do", "Got better at something I did before." I love this. I love everything about this poll. It's tangible, it's easy to understand, and it so quickly and easily promotes a growth mindset. If I had my own classroom I would want to implement something like this so that the children could easily drop their cardboard tokens into the tubes. The class discussions it would foster- from "what did you do new today?" to "Which tube has the most? The least? Why do you think that is?" could be so rich.
  There is so much more I could say about the museum and the experience. The wall where you could catch letters- how much do I want that technology in the classroom so I could turn letters into high frequency words? Every aspect of the museum promoted hands on critical thinking geared to multiple ages. In short, it was exactly my perfect image of a school would be- if we had enough flexible thinking to allow for so many open ended tasks. 
Building cars to send down a ramp

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

What happens when they don't #closeFCPS

Yesterday's morning post was a sad foreshadowing of what was to come. My peaceful morning wondering about the announcement that never came turned into a less than peaceful drive to work, a day of everyone questioning the need to be on the roads, and a twitter explosion, with high schoolers in our county discovering the power of social media. Their battle cry, #closeFCPS, trended worldwide, with tweets coming in from around the world saying, "I'm in Germany and I still think they should #closeFCPS." There is probably a lot to be said about the social media lesson they learned, which isn't something that could have been taught in an actual classroom. And I suppose it's better to learn about that power through something as benign as a snow day and not through the need for standing up to an oppressive government. I'm not sure that's what the county had in mind when they were making the decision to keep the schools open though, and I'm pretty sure county officials' days would have been a lot calmer if dealing with the twitter feed wasn't on their agenda.

So what happens inside the schools when they don't close? I wasn't on twitter myself, but here's my twitter-like feed of the day.

    • 6:45- Getting family ready, check email to see that 8 am meeting is canceled. Momentarily pleased that the administrators were thoughtful to cancel the meeting. Thinking of what I'll do with my free hour.
    • 7:00- Check Facebook and see a stream of posts about the roads and accidents. Starting to get concerned about my own commute.
    • 7:30- Leaving for school after finally wrestling toddler and infant into coats.
    • 8:15- Pull into school parking lot, no longer wondering what I'll do with my free hour. It was just eaten up by the commute. Why isn't anyone here yet? Did they cancel school on my drive? Email check- nope, still on.
    • 8:40- Loud speaker requests anyone in the building to come to the office to so we can access how many teachers we actually have and make a plan for how we can cover classes without teachers.
    • 9:00- Teachers waiting at assigned posts for kids who are usually streaming into the building by now. The stream is more of a drip. 1, 2, 3.
    • 9:20- Only kids in the building are ones whose parents brought them. More teachers making it to school. The classrooms we were worried about covering are still empty- no kids.
    • 9:30- Teachers standing out waiting for buses. Rumors about stuck buses, buses skipping whole neighborhoods stops, and bus drivers being told that being stuck for two hours and being hit by a car isn't a priority right now, to just sit tight and wait.
    • 9:40- Buses are coming in. We prepare for the onslaught of kids- 10 kids get off the first bus, 6 off the second, none off the third. Kids getting off the first bus are talking about standing on the street for an hour waiting for their bus. That's dedication to learning. 
    • 9:50- all resource teachers are wandering the halls looking for ways to be useful. There aren't enough kids to be useful.
    • 9:55- News that we are a twitter sensation starts to come in. 
    • 10:00- I'm walking by half-filled classrooms.
    • 10:05- One student tells how he came to school in a taxi because they bus never came to get him.
    • 10:15- county-wide email comes in "apologizing" for the decision, saying we will not get home early. Really worried about being stuck here tonight. Will they actually get all the buses unstuck and ready for their afternoon routes?
    • 10:30- Teammate arrives to school after having her car hit.
    • 10:40- Rumor that county told bus drivers that if they have kids stuck on buses to just take them nearest school. Wonder if this is actually true. Are we going to have random kids show up? Where are our students?
    • 11:00- Teachers frantically calling parents to figure out if their students are stuck on a bus or are safe at home.
    • 11:15- I go to pull students for a group. Student isn't at school. 
    • 11:30- Hear a story about a car sliding under a bus, no one seems concerned. Apparently there is worse happening out there.
    • 12:15- Only two students in the classroom I normally go into for guided reading. Feeling useless. 
    • 1:00- Run into a teacher who finally made it to school after abandoning her car when they closed the road she sat on for two hours.
    • 2:00- Planning meeting ends with us checking the twitter hashtag and reading about all the bus accidents being reported.
    • 3:00- Go to pick up fourth grade guided reading group. None of the 4 members made it to school. Back to paperwork. Classes watching movies.
    • 3:01- Another apology email from the county comes in, this one a bit more sincere.
    • 3:20- Copier seems to have stopped working. Perhaps busted from the amount of paperwork we were catching up on today.
    • 3:25- Almost every classroom I walk by has a movie on. Classes are combined since together they can make up part of a whole class.
    • 3:45- Worried about getting everyone out the door. Will the buses actually come?
    • 4:15- Leaving school and realizing I worked with a total of two students today. 
    • 6:00- check email- see two county wide emails, one announcing tomorrow's two hour delay and another letting us know that those of us who came into work will have an additional day of administrative leave. Those that didn't make it in won't have to take leave for the day. #thanksFCPS. That makes me happy, although does not do anything for the high school tweeters. Alas, the power of social media can bring awareness to a cause but it isn't going to be a fairy god mother.
The whole day leaves me with two main thoughts. 1) I work with extremely dedicated teachers. Those who made it to school had so many war stories to tell, and those who didn't feel ridiculously guilty even though the situation was out of their control. 2) The students I work with are dedicated as well. The long wait at the bus stops, taking a taxi, parents walking students to school in the snow- it is a reminder of the commitment to learning our students and our families make.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Snow Day?

Snow is silently falling outside my window, coating the street and sidewalk with a light white covering and a sense of peace that comes from natural beauty intersecting with our busy lives. Inside I'm hitting refresh on my email every five seconds, waiting for those brilliant few lines saying, "go back to sleep, we've closed schools today," or even, "two hour delay." We've been back at school for only a day, but the excitement over a snow day- especially the first snow day of the year- isn't something that follows any logic.

5:25. No email yet. Snow still falling.

Over winter break my Facebook feed started to fill with teacher comments about snow this week. On one person's excited "Snow?" status I noticed an angry commenter, who asked just how lazy teachers are to have two full weeks off and then be hoping for more days off. If I squint my eyes I can kind of see her point. I'm assuming that she has at least three children at home, had her own work schedule thrown off by the two week break, and is ready to send her kids back to school. She wants routine. Or maybe she has a horrible, boring job that would never allow her to experience the joy of snow. I have a small bit of sympathy, but not enough to agree that we shouldn't be excited about a snow day.

5:30. Website still has yesterday's date. No sign of a snow day.

It's not that we're lazy, don't want to work, don't like our jobs or don't care about our students. It's pretty much the opposite. If we are working all the time, thinking about our students all the time, and putting in long hours that we don't actually get paid for, snow days are like our Christmas bonus. Other professionals get to look forward to a check at the end of the year for a job well done. Snow days are our bonus check from God, thanking us for our hard work and telling us to keep it up. Here's a day off. Some teachers will go into work anyway if their buildings are open and try to get work done. Others will work from home, and some will stay in their pajamas all day and watch movies. Use it how you see fit. It's a snow day.

5:40am. Still no announcement. Toddler starting to stir upstairs.

I feel for those of you who work in warm weather states because you don't experience the elation of waking up to find you've been given a random day off. I'm sure you find joy in not having recess duty in 35 degree weather, but still. Snow days are a special sort of magic.

5:43. Why is there no announcement yet? Starting to get worried. By now they've got the buses up and running.

5:49. Things are looking grim. Time to face the reality of cleaning off the car and going into work on time. Could it be?