Wednesday, April 29, 2009

beginnings of success with the patterns of thinking?

today on the first grade field trip to a nature center i took my video camera and “interviewed” the kids about what they were learning. i tried to make my questions include the patterns of thinking:
what is it/ what is it not?
What are it’s parts/what’s it a part of?
What is the relationship between _____ and _____?
What is the perspective of ______?

and I have to admit, I was really shocked and surprised by their answers. I’d gone on the very same trip the day before with another set of first graders, however, the first graders I interviewed with the patterns-of-thinking questions made connections I’ve never had students make. I even had one draw out the relationship between frogs and plants (one starts as a tadpole, one starts as a seed and they both change).

This was my 6th year to go on this very field trip and thanks to the patterns of thinking questions it is the first year I realized there was an overarching theme of natural changes. when the idea of making a video of our trip came to me it was really just an excuse to play with my new camera. using the patterns of thinking questions were kind of a fluke, but i have to say i am ecstatic about how i saw them process the information.

and then, other reflections:
my biggest struggle with the thinkblocks has been when i use them with my two friends who have autism. one of these friends continues to only see the blocks as representing the items we used the first two times- his family and spring. we'll keep working though.

i've used them a lot with my bff, my other friend with autism. lately we've had a difficult time focusing and so i'm not sure what's sinking in and what's not. we've been using them to label parts of the story to help with his retelling, and some days it works and some days i'm still beating my head against the wall.

yesterday i got an email from a researcher in ireland who is studying the use of thinkblocks with children who have high functioning autism. and she so brilliantly suggested, "leave the blocks out and let him play with them... adult passive: child active". adult passive? that's when it hit me why i've been having trouble with the thinkblocks. i've been looking for these great lessons- ones i can plan out and have complete control over. ones that i say, "look, isn't that great! look at the fabulous lesson i did". which is SO the opposite of what i should be doing. i need to let my bff take some more control over the blocks. he needs to explore and play and stop watching me force him to use these weird white diamond like things. i need to start slowly and watch how he uses the weird white diamond like shapes first, and then lead him from there.

So i tried this theory today with my other friend with autism. and yes, it worked! he immediately made the blocks into the trains from thomas the tank engine. (it took me a bit to follow what he was doing). now we’ll see where that takes us next.

i think the thought of adult passive: child active is a hard one for us because we so enjoy the control we have in the classroom. plus, in many ways we're expected to have complete control and we're scared that when we don't it makes us look like bad teachers. the passive adult piece is one of the reasons we don't let our students play as much- when they play we are passive. even today on the field trip i found myself struggling to stand back and let them explore on their own.

i am getting completely sucked into thinking how i would illustrate something with them in every aspect of my life. driving to school i think about how i'd connect what i heard on npr with the book i read for fun and the economist. i find myself picturing the blocks and organizing them into my thoughts. watch out mr. lipstick, before you know it i'll bring them to the dinner table for our political debates :)


it's funny how much we can care about some of these kids. even the ones who have the ability to make us angrier than we'd ever thought we could be. these kids stay with you, coming home with you at the end of the day, slipping in and out of your thoughts like leaves floating by on a river. or sometimes, like leaves getting stuck on a fallen log and clogging up our minds until we can think of little else.

it's the ones you carry home with you that make you wonder how hard you should fight for them, or when you should go ahead and give up. when to stand by your beliefs because it's right for the child, or when to decide others know best.

with some children there always seem to be walls standing between you and the answer. whether the walls are their parents, the special ed laws, or other people in your school, they block your way, keeping you from what you think is right with a student.

there are times i wonder if it is worth the fight. for some children i think i just have to let go, because you can't save everybody. pick your battles and don't burn bridges with people so that you can still help the next child that comes along. but how do you know when to fight and when to let go?

this year our speech/language pathologist pushed and pushed to save one kid. for two years she fought for him, and frequently had her hard work thrown in her face. and then it happened- it worked. the wall came down and the little boy's life changed forever. i got chills hearing the story, and wondered if i would have pushed as hard in the face of such resistance.

i had another child this year i wondered if i should fight for. was it worth it, i thought, if i lose my credibility with others in the building? and for a few weeks i stood back and watched until i realized i couldn't let it go anymore. so my co-teacher and i fought and pushed, and now as the dust is settling, it appears that we were right to fight so hard.

today we ran into a wall with another child. a child whose made us climb so many walls already this year. we've fought so hard, every day, enlisting every service, opinion, and resource we have. we've thought and carefully planned every step we've taken for him. and for what? to hit the final wall? for all our work to fall through the cracks? to hear we have been wrong all this time?

when do we give in to another's opinion, and when do we stand up for our own?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

asking for help

today i was well into monitoring a competitive game of 'make 10' in my before-school math club for third graders when another teacher brought a little boy to the door. he's in the hallway, but he says he wants to go to math club, she explained, but i think that's just for certain kids, right?

she's completely right. it's for kids who were identified by their teachers in the beginning of the year as needing extra support in math. really, it's before-school remediation. not that we call it that. the kids all think they were selected for a super-special math experience.

i didn't know what to say, but how can you turn away someone who shows up early wanting to learn?

how did you know about math club? i asked

oh, these two girls in my class told me that if i'm having trouble in math i can come here on tuesday and wednesday mornings. he explained, with a matter-of-fact voice that wasn't ashamed of needing help. not that he'd heard it was fun, or that he wanted to be with his friend, but that he thought he realized he needed help and decided to seek it out.

so what do you feel you need help with?

multiplication, and you know, times. but i'm really good at decimals! he announced.

alright, come back tomorrow, same time, same place.

i think i was in high school when i first asked for help outside of the classroom. i admire this third grader so much for taking seeking out help, and i'm so glad we've been lucky enough to be able to have these before and after school remediation programs this year. i don't know that we've done anything special to make them math wizards, but i think it's given them a place to grow their confidence in math, as well as a group they can feel a part of.

although, i suppose it's value will all come down to the scores they get on the upcoming state tests, right?

playing around

so for my birthday one of my baby brothers (i say that because he's 23 and makes more money than me) gave me a flip camera. i'm still playing around with the different ways i can use it with teaching. i have managed to convince my bff that is the best thing ever since he loves performing. normal tasks he refuses to do i've gotten him to complete by just video taping him and letting him watch himself afterward. i can't decide if it's making him a more thoughtful reader because he can now hear his mistakes, or if it's making him decide his mistakes don't matter at much, but regardless, at least he's reading more now.

today i decided to take the fabulous sidewalk chalk i got at the conference on saturday and let him draw pictures from his favorite story. only catch was they had to be in sequential order and then he had to retell the story using the pictures (retelling is always something we struggle with). he enjoyed it (although wasn't thrilled with the messy hands part of sidewalk chalk) and i managed to get him on video retelling a story using real sentences and transition words. hooray!

you'll probably have to bare with me as i continue to play with the camera. oh... maybe my next step can be having him add in text...

(I'm trying to edit the video where he's talking to post that, but apparently i'm still learning how to edit)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

go out and play

i spent today at a conference on the importance of play in early education and school readiness. now i want to go back to school and force the children to go play. NOW.

first of all, i love this conference. i've gone for three years in a row now and every time i come away with something. it brings together day care providers, preschool teachers, kindergarten teachers, principals, and policy makers to discuss important factors in getting our little ones ready for school. i love that as teachers we get to sit and discuss this with day care providers who otherwise we wouldn't really get to interact with. the message that we're all important pieces in children's lives is sent loud and clear, and the importance isn't on great lessons or progressive programs. it's about the kids we see every day.

this year's entire theme was learning through play and i have to say, i had no idea play was so important. i was always a believer in play. now i'm convinced it's the answer to all of our problems in education and that if we don't let our children play we'll have a nation of serial killers.

funny that the more we "fix" education the more we remove play. hmmmm....

the last speaker, stuart brown, whose background includes everything from internal medicine, psychiatry, and clinical research, spoke to us about the neurological implications of play. what stuck with me the most, and what i don't think i'll lose anytime soon, is that when he did a study on common factors in murderers in texas prisons. he found that the most dominant common factor was that all the murderers had play deprivation in their childhoods, or, as he so nicely put it, "a systematic repression of play behavior".

which, after everything we'd already heard about the brain and play throughout the day, made complete sense.

i'm not sure i can do the conference justice here, but i have so much i want to reflect on. here are the important pieces i took away:

-play is a fundamental part of human nature (and not just human nature, but also in animals)
-free play is an essential piece in early brain mapping
-play lights up the brain more than anything else
-an important part of play is risk taking- it teaches us about learning limits
-rough and tumble play is also essential (when rats are denied rough and tumble play they do not learn how to differentiate between a friend and enemy and are unable to mate!!)
-no mater how smart a person is, and how good their credentials are, if they are not a "tinkerer" or play with their hands, they are not good at problem solving at an executive level.
-pretend play allows the child to develop the ability to create their own internal narrative, which is essentially the inner self.
-when children learn to read play signals in others they are developing the ability to read others, which allows them to truly trust another person.
-students who participate in "drill and kill" activities are more aggressive.
-play allows a child to be in control of their learning, their environment, their lives.

i could write more and more but i think i'm over flowing my own brain at the moment.

but my thoughts on it all:
-if children who have been able to develop their cognitive skills through play are stronger with symbolic relationships, problem solving, and understanding story sequence, plot development, and character development- then why are we beating our heads against the wall using other methods to teach kids these skills in ways that aren't as natural as play?

-so many of my kindergarten and first grade kiddos have anger issues that seep back to control. if play is a chance for kids to be in control, would letting them have more free play, or even guided play where we respond to their prompts, give them the control they are so desperately seeking? (and we are so desperately trying to "give them" through silly behavior plans?

-i think one of the reasons we don't see play more is that it can't be controlled as much as work sheets, graphic organizers, and literature discussions. it can be messy, loud, and unstructured. and it's harder on us because we have to follow the kids' lead. we aren't bringing them our lesson plans and asking them to listen to us- we're listening to them and then thinking very quickly about how to guide their play with our objectives. one speaker said, "teachers must be sharp, keen, and purposely observant". none of that is easy.
another reason we don't see much play is that it just isn't as measurable (again, it doesn't let the grown ups have control)

it is amazing to hear about the brain research and how science has proven the importance of play- but to still know that there are schools out there that don't have recess and kindergarten classrooms without free play times.

as a first grade teacher i still had "free choice". it was my favorite part of the day, but certainly not because it was easy on me. i kept anecdotal notes on what my kids were doing and used those notes to plan guided play for the next day. by the time we got to measurement my kids had already used learned how to use rulers through whatever art project they'd taken on (one year was making my wedding dress with pink construction paper. yes, they wanted me to be barbie). they made houses for stuffed animals, wrote plays, played probability games, planted a garden, or read books to their animals. (i got this idea from fred jones' tools for teaching book- he calls it preferential activity time to make it sound more academic than "play")
but it was messy and i was always embarrassed with other staff members walked in and saw what was happening. i know i looked like i didn't have any control. but i did. in fact, in a lot of ways i had more control than i would have if we were still doing a lesson.

a group of us at school have been reading the book mindset about how people who believe intelligence is not fixed are more successful. yesterday afternoon we got together to talk about how we could impart this knowledge on our kids. (one way is to change our teacher language from "you're so smart!" to, "wow, you worked SO hard!")
all i could think about today was how letting children play more teaches them these skills. they learn the problem solving skills we're trying to teach. they learn to develop a model in their head and then make a plan to make it a reality (like playing with legos). they learn to fail, and how to recover from failure, and that it is possible to recover from failure.

and of course, the whole day i kept thinking about how this all connects to thinkblocks (which i am becoming more and more obsessed with!)

it kills me that we have this knowledge about how the brain develops through play, and we have research about how play supports skills like creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, initiative, and self-direction, and how we still are not using it in our schools. the gap between what we know and what we do is so wide and continues to get wider.

when i was visiting china i volunteered in a school. classes were 45 minutes long and when class was over the students had a 15 minute break. they had no playground equipment, their "playground" was a field of dirt, and there was no adult supervision but they played their own organized games, laughed, chased each other, and then returned on time to the same classroom they had just left.

so perhaps it's not the long school days and the rigorous curriculum that's pushing them ahead of us globally. maybe it's the multiple breaks during the day that allow for that uninhibited free play.


Thursday, April 23, 2009

bang your head slowly

i thought i'd write a nice, calm, reflective post on how thinkblocks have been going, or perhaps how i'm worried about a certain student, or maybe even the book we're all reading for teachers as readers. you know, something thought provoking and slightly intelligent.

i can't make my brain form complete sentences.

today was horrid. there must be something wrong with the air pressure, the moon, or the equilibrium of the earth. something has crawled into our children's brains and turned them from the active, engaged learners we love to.... well, kids with spring fever. but not a low-grade fever. a 'we'd better go to the er because this isn't your typical fever' fever. not just a warm forehead and achy body fever. the kind that cripples you.

my bff was off the wall today. i actually video taped our interactive writing today so that mr. lipstick can understand what i do everyday. and so that i'd know that i hadn't made it all up in my head, this really was how his thought process was going.

the transcript of the tape goes something like this:

me: ok, read it to me:
bff: ok, read it to me. what does it say?
me: your turn to read it
bff: thanks for the ice george. you're a curious monkey, aren't you?
me: I'll read the first part you tell me what's next. 'the pigeon went to _____'. what comes next?
bff: a very curious monkey
me: ok, what word is next, let's read it again
bff: the pigeon went to SCHOOL! SCHOOOOOL... School! how do you write it?
me: what do you hear? say it slowly
bff: sssss..... wait- *begins singing magic school bus song. then writes school from memory from picturing magic school bus*
me: great! what does that say?
bff: what does that say? what does that say? oh boy oh boy oh boy! *covers eyes with hands* Can i read it? can i open my eyes? *takes hands off eyes.* oh no! my eyes are glued shut. ahhhhhh! ok, that's better. WOW! it says "the pigeon went to school"
YOU DID IT! you're the best. i love you.

5 minutes later and i'm practicing my mental imaging skills- imagining a nice frozen margaretta.

my bff never really intends to misbehave, or is overly malicious. but i feel like he's a good litmus test for what's going on in the building. if he can't stay calm for more than 2 or 3 minutes without breaking into repetitive behavior, well, something is up.

and it was. note passing, kicking, screaming, hiding from teachers, running out of the classroom. (different children no less). our hallway was filled with screaming, kicking kindergarten students for the majority of the day.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009


i found a fairly simple yet incredibly useful website ( to use with my bff. i'm working on improving his knowledge of high frequency words (words common in our language but are not necessary phonetic- like what, with, and, because, etc. words that are just better to go ahead and memorize so that children know them quickly)

so i set my bff up with a game from this site after i'd gone through pulling up the site, entering the words and then getting an appropriate game set up. i got him started and walked away.

a little while later i went back to see that he'd re-entered the site on another computer and put his own words in (words from the word wall- words he didn't know before). then he listened to them being read aloud to him and played the game. he repeated this about three times before he wrote the website down along with a list of words and stuffed it into his backpack so he could play it at home.

i was a bit floored by his independence, but excited all the same. if this is how we'll learn our 100 first grade words then my job will be a lot easier. just cross your fingers this keeps up.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

poverty, neuroscience, and stress

when we came home last night my husband had left the economist from april 4th on my bedside, folded to a story whose subtitle read "neuroscience and social deprivation." how well does he know me?

new research has been completed on the impact of poverty on the brain. researchers out of the university of pennsylvania found that "the working memories of children who have been raised in poverty have smaller capacities than those of middle-class children". this is something any of us could have inferred from our work with these kiddos, but of course, it is only observation. now, they've completed the research that proves it.

the most significant factor of what impacts working memory is not the child's birthweight, the mother's age at the child's birth, whether or not the child was raised in a one parent or two parent household, or even if the child is raised in a middle class or in poverty. the number one impact on working memory is stress on the child.

other research has shown that "stress changes the activity of neurotransmitters" so that it actually suppresses the generation of new nerve cells and forces existing ones to remodel. (all this paraphrased/copied from the economist- it's too early to worry about putting into my own words).

so the little one i work with who can't remember his abc's- it's because of the drama happening every night at home... drama keeping his brain from developing. his working memory isn't stepping up to take on this new information. nor is the little girl whose in charge of making sure her brothers and sisters get fed at night. or the little boy from the middle class household whose mother is always telling him he's not smart enough, boyish enough, or strong enough. no wonder he struggled to get the most basic work completed. or the child from the incredibly loving family whose just journeyed over here as a refuge from ethiopia?

of course, what happens when we take these young third graders and add onto their already stressful lives with standardized testing? what happens to their short-term memory then?

i'm going to get on google scholar and see if i can get the actual research. i don't know what it means for us, as teachers, other than we can continue to provide children with a nurturing environment. i wonder if the next step will be research on how we can keep keep children's nerve cells in their brain from remodeling.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

becoming an aggressive learner

for the past few months i've been doing curriculum based measurement (CBM) with my kindergarten kiddos. to be honest the only reason i started doing it was because of a grad school assignment, but slowly i got hooked as i watched the kids become invested in their own learning.

CBM really is just measuring a child's learning everyday but giving them the same probe and charting their growth. so every morning my friends and i sit down one on one and i show them 10 flashcards of whatever i've decided they need to work on. i record how well they do and then we play a quick game to help them work on a word or two they didn't get correct. the whole thing takes about five minutes per kid. they've slowly begun to really get into it and pay attention to how many they get right each day.

today i sat down with a little one to go over his words. yesterday he'd gotten all 10 correct so i had a graph to give him showing him his progress. we talked about how when we started with this set of words he could only read six of them, but now he can read all 10. he was beaming. then we settled in to work on some words he has trouble with and he suddenly stopped me and said, "wait a minute, i need to write this down" and he got up, got paper and a pencil and wrote down the words he was struggling with. he took notes. in kindergarten.
he read them to me, pointing to each one to be sure he was right.
then he did it again. "i need to practice" he said.

i just about fell out of my seat. my jaw hung open and i stared at him awhile, wondering where my former student had gone. the one who just guessed random words, scribbled on his papers, and found ways to avoid work. slowly over the course of the year he's turned from a passive learner into an active, engaged, and even aggressive learner.

in getting up to get that paper he took control of his own learning. he knew he wanted to learn the difference between the words 'it' and 'at' and he must have figured out that he learns by writing them down.

i took him to sign the principal's proudboard (a board in the office we can take kids to sign if they do a great job with something- it's up to teacher discretion what they get to sign it for). he was beaming, of course, but the best part was how he showed my principal his graph and said, "look what i learned" and then showed her the words he'd written down and read them to her. he's not proud of himself for being smart- he's proud of himself for his hard work and that it paid off.

i was beaming myself as i lead him out of the office. this is a child whose never been to the office for anything good- he's diagnosed with an emotional disability AND a learning disability and is in his second round of kindergarten. and there he was, trying his heart out. i could dance on the clouds.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

thinking about thinking- long and rambling, forgive me.

yesterday we were able to attend a training on teaching with Thinkblocks. i have to admit, in 48 hours i've become obsessed. i'd heard rumblings about it from teachers at my school who had already been trained, but i still didn't quite see what the fuss was about. not overly thrilled to be attending a session the second day back from break, but, well, always have an open mind, right?

it was awesome.

i tried to explain it to a coworker who didn't attend the training and i failed, so i'm not sure what kind of a job i can do here. but the fundamentals behind it are based on brain research about how we, as humans, think. the research shows four fundamental patterns of human thought- distinctions, relationships, systems, and perspectives. although they go into depth about all of this (i felt like i was in a college philosophy class but also dabbling in the movie i heart huckabee as we discussed whether or not a table was really a table and how language is merely shorthand for the thoughts in our brain). they gave us guiding questions for each of the four categories and discussed many ways we can teach children to think in these patterns.

(i love, LOVE that all of this research is actually turning into practical implications in the classroom. with the push for everything to be research based i feel like that doesn't mean very much most of the time. but this started with new information on the brain and decided to look at how it could be used to help kids)

i'd heard this all before actually, at the training i've previously blogged about. however, they were way off in their implementation of these theories and with their methods none of it really made sense. it just wasn't applicable or realistic.

this was different. they introduced blocks they've developed to help facilitate teaching children to think with these questions. (i love that they opened with the fact that you didn't need the blocks to teach the patterns of thinking, and that you really could do without them. the blocks are just there to help).

as someone who defended her thesis while destroying a paperclip in her hands under the table, i know i am a very kinesethetic person, and know that holding something tangible in my hands helps me learn. so i immediately went and tracked down the blocks to play with today.

and really, it was just playing. i tried little lessons with different friends but i think more than anything we enjoyed holding them, manipulating them, and enjoying the satisfying "clunk" when you drop a small one into the bigger one and say, "mom is a part of T's family". then taking the blocks out, lining them out, and counting them, only to drop them back in again.

today i used them with one student with emotional disabilities, one student with learning disabilities, and two students with autism. with the student with emotional disabilities we discussed the parts of the family (wholes/parts is a part of the system pattern of thinking). with the student with learning disabilities we used the blocks to look at how she and her twin sister are related (relationships pattern). with one student with autism we retold the parts of knuffle bunny. i realize none of this makes any sense if you haven't seen the blocks first. and i'm sorry. i'm still processing this all myself and hope that i'll be able to slow my mind down enough to really explain it all soon.

i found my fingers itching for the blocks during lessons when i hadn't thought i'd use them. to introduce a concept in guided reading, to have a student retell a story, to review the rules in line. and in my long afternoon meeting when we were discussing a student and how we may find him eligible for special education services, i wanted to pull them out and use them to analyze the little one.

i can see that i'm going to need to find a better way to transport them so i'll have them with me at all times.

splattypus blogged that i'd be able to write more about the training. i wrote a lot, but know that none of it made sense. i appologize, and direct you to her for a better imagine of what i'm trying to say.


i have to admit i'm having one of those weeks that just makes me excited to get up and go to work. it's nice to be back with my own kids. someone waved a magic wand over their heads over spring break because they suddenly seem to have grown up. things they were struggling with before our break now seem to be easier for them. they seem taller, they're listening more, and they're thinking more. if i ever doubt the developmental theories and piaget spring is what always changes my mind. the mere fact that we've let them get a little older and develop a little more seems to open them up for new learning. i love it where the kindergartners are in their learning right now.

my ecstatic state is probably helped by the fact that i turned in my last huge grad school paper monday night (just a final and then the comprehensive exams standing between me and my masters) and we found out that we are 99% sure we'll be year-round next year. no promises for the year after that, but we'll take next year at least.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

love note

on the last day of intersession he pushed it into my hand and closed my fingers around it. for you. he whispered and then bulleted out of the door, down the hallway, not looking back. i get love notes all the time, the ones that say, "you are the best teacher" because all first graders write these letters to every teacher they know. so i didn't think about it and pushed it into my pocket as i said goodbye to the rest of the class one by one.

i find it again doing laundry and carefully unfold the hundreds of folds he'd used to turn it into a tiny square. one word, written on both the front and the back, with flowers carefully drawn around the three letters.


my heart hurts.

the one word, a lie, given to the wrong person, says it all. no first grader with a happy, healthy family is looking for a new mom. not like that. maybe in a playful way, or a forgetful way- when they say "mom look over here!" because they forget they are in school and are use to getting attention from their mom, and with you it is the same.

this was searching for something else. something that makes me worried about him this week, at home, and worry about him in the future, when he continues to try to find the mom he is looking for. in a girlfriend? in the gangs waiting with open arms? in an adult he shouldn't trust? will he fake helplessness in school so he can get the maternal attention he's seeking?

yet i am not his mom, not even his teacher, anymore.

so i fold the note back up along the tiny creases until it is the one inch square he created.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

fun, but was it measurable?

i have to admit that grad school has been changing the way i look at education a bit. i don't know if that's a good thing, and i don't think i fully realized it until i decided to give my kiddos a test during intersession.

a test!! during intersession!! what kind of cruel teacher would do such a thing? i knew it was evil but once the idea came to me i couldn't move past it. i wanted to know what they learned, or if they'd learned anything at all. whether or not our county is going to keep our intersessions is up in the air right now and i guess part of me wanted to have something tangible to know whether or not it actually gives us a change in academic performance (see below for background).

also, i'll admit, part of this idea was for my own sanity. since my class was scrapbooking we make a HUGE mess. other teachers would walk into my room and i could tell from their faces and how they quickly back-tracked out of the room that they thought i was crazy. it looked like i had no control, i know. i promise i did- i'd structured the class to give them control of their own learning- true organized chaos if you will, but in the end, it was organized. still, after two weeks of "oh my" whenever someone walked into the room i felt i needed to justify my class, if only to myself.

so i created a quick "challenge" (with first graders if you say anything in a deep voice like a tv announcer they'll buy it. the second graders fully knew what i was doing and called it a test- the first graders gave them evil looks and said, "no! it's a challenge!" this is why i love first grade.

i taught a scrapbooking class and my goal had been to cover:
-measurement- inches vs centimeters
-shapes- square vs rectangle
-line of symmetry & symetrical objects
-fractions- whole, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8
-locating virginia on a map of the us
-locating the us on a map of the world

it sounds fairly basic but after all, it is intersession.

i found that they did in fact learn something. i was shocked actually. i expected to be disappointed.

my morning class, the one that i spent all of my time yelling at, lecturing about behavior, and the one i limited our activities because we just couldn't handle doing more, actually did the best on the "challenge". i was amazed. they were very proud of themselves and when we went over the "challenge" they told me they hadn't known the information before. (of course since i didn't do a pretest i don't know how true that is).

my afternoon class did well on the math aspects but all identified canada as the united states. (clearly i messed up my teaching at some point in that one!) sadly i feel i can't really count my afternoon class papers because when i was trying to fix other children's scrapbooks one little boy proudly went around and tried to tell everyone the answers because he was so happy he had learned them. so, i know for that little one he learned something. for the others, well, i just can't say for sure.

so i left feeling content that yes, they have a better grasp of fractions, measurement, and map skills than when they came to me, but i also realize that part of this just doesn't matter. so many of the kiddos in my afternoon class had very weak english skills. what mattered more than anything else was the fact that they had two weeks to practice their english. we played games that made them use their english using descriptive words. they wrote their puppet plays that made them use their english. and in a way, that was more important than learning the cold facts they might forget.

and my morning class, the ones that were holy terrors but somehow learned something? those kids needed to feel successful in something. they learned to manage a project for two weeks, make decisions for themselves about how they would manage their time, and worked independently on creative tasks that in the end they could be proud of. and that seems more important than learning those cold facts too.

this seems to be the heart of the education debate. did i need to have a test to measure what my students learned during intersession? there is no simple way to measure the skills they learned of managing an independent project, but it was fairly easy for me to put together a test to give me tangible evidence. so what is more valuable? the test results or the larger outcomes? which should i be held accountable for?

luckily for me and my school, what i can say about all this is that intersession itself is valuable and not a waste of school funding.

**** our school is on a modified calendar so we start in july and have two week breaks throughout the school year, ending in june with the regular calendar schools in our county. during those two week breaks the students can pay a very small fee and come to school to attend intersession. each student gets to take two classes, a morning class and an afternoon class. as teachers we have the option to teach for extra pay but we do not have to. we bring in teachers from the community as well so the students get to have "experts" teach classes on plants, etc.
because intersession is a large extra cost on the school district (supplies, teacher pay, six extra weeks of busing) our school district is considering eliminating it. while they realize it is valuable to our students they also feel they just can't afford it. we are still waiting for the final budget approval to know whether or not we'll be year-round next year. there are only seven schools that have this calendar in our large county. i also believe it was brilliantly insightful of the old superintendent to recognize that the communities in our large school district are not the same and that they need different structures to be successful. having only 7 year-round schools is not easy on anybody and creates more paperwork for everyone in the long run, but is also very worth while to those students. i don't think many school districts open themselves up to having different models in different schools and i appreciate that ours did (and i hope they wont be changing that!!)

i support keeping our calendar even if we do not have intersession (partly because i hope that one day the money will be back and we can put intersession back in place, partly because i'm terrified of our kiddos staying home over the summer without us, and partly because i feel the community will step up and supply intersession-like classes for families that need day care. they'll be more expensive but i think that is better than the full summer to themselves. ) however, this is not an option and they will either take away intersession and our calendar or let us keep it at least one more year. keep your fingers crossed for us!!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

wrong link...

here it is...

Click Here to take survey

your thoughts on behavior management

ah yes, it's spring break and i've created a paper fort for myself in my living room. research papers, survey results, apa guide books, the syllabus, etc are quietly forming a wall around me, locking me down. of course i might be finished by now if i could stop checking my twitter feed once every 3 seconds, planning our next vacation, checking my google reader once ever 5 seconds, and engaging in other procrastinating behaviors.

regardless- my research project is on how teachers develop and implement individual behavior modification plans. i've polled the teachers at the think tank (my school) because for my paper my professor wanted me to keep the survey results small. (thank goodness because just analyzing that data is killing me). but i'd love to get your thoughts as well.

if you are a classroom teacher i'd love it if you follow '>this link and fill out this survey. it should take about 15 minutes. if you work at my school then you've probably already done this and i can't imagine you'd want to do it again.


mrs. lipstick

Monday, April 6, 2009

cleaning tricks

one of my first posts on this blog was about how hard i found it to keep a classroom clean when i was a general ed teacher. i haven't had to deal with this in awhile since i've been out of the classroom, but the two weeks of intersession brought it all back.

on friday i knew we had to do some major cleaning to get the room ready for the class it belongs to. yet i had a bunch of hyped up puppeteers and was looking for a way to get us to clean that wouldn't get us too crazy. i'd already used up magic trash and pick-up olympics (explained in detail in old blog post above). so i needed something new.

i put all the tasks that needed to be done in a basket and put the kids in groups of 3. they had to pull a job from the basket, complete it, bring it to me to check, and then draw another job.

they were SO excited. you would have thought i was having them pull out christmas presents from santa's sack. i only wish i'd thought of this "game" when i was still in the classroom.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

saying yes

the oddest thing happened last week with my afternoon intersession class. they completely overtook the class. there were 21 first and second graders who somehow decided to turn my class on scrapbooking into writing and performing puppet shows. i was overruled as a teacher- overturned. i did nothing but find time during the day for them to do this (and if i hadn't i'm pretty sure they would have done it anyway).

on wednesday afternoon a little girl who marches to the beat of her own drum asked me if she could perform a puppet show for the class. some of the kids had already been making puppets when they finished their work but she wanted to go a step further- she wanted to actually put the puppets to use. so, ever one to know how to manipulate first graders, i said, "sure! but only if you write a script first"
"a script- you know, what each person says. you have to write the story down"
"fine!" she stomped away. i thought the subject was over.

a little later she came back with a script and pushed it into my face. "i need two other actors" she announced, as though she was a hollywood producer. why not? i thought. isn't this what intersession is about? so i picked two little boys i thought could handle being bossed around and let the three of them go into the hallway to practice. they came back and performed for us right before bus call. it was exactly what you'd think a play written by a first grader would be like. it was titled, "two girls scared of a mouse" and consisted of the lines,
"oh no!"
"oh no!"
"a mouse!"
"get away!"

ok, not fine theater. not even creative writing. and somewhat painful to watch. but they'd had absolutely no adult instruction. and the class LOVED it.

the next day two boys ran to the door of my classroom waving a paper in my face. they'd written a play on their own time and wanted to perform it for the class. the little girl had returned with her second script and others were asking if they could do plays as well. i really didn't know. this seemed like it had potential to become insane- everyone would need to be put into groups- they'd need instruction (on what, i don't know, but i have to teach, right?) so i put them off and made them do their work first.

but when they finished their work and while i was busy helping other kids they were slowly putting themselves into groups, making new puppets, and working on the scripts. finally i realized what was going on and gave in. we cleaned up early and i gave them time to practice with their groups and then perform for one another. it was the quietest they'd ever been and they were working in groups to plan their plays. i expected fights, hurt feelings, ripped puppets, and arguments. but there wasn't any of that.

i was bored. i was the teacher and i had nothing to do.

and i was pretty impressed with their puppets and their sets. one even had a rotating stage (like in noises off). the gingerbread man's set was detailed to include an oven with a door that opened and closed.

they were again enthralled by one another's plays. i mentioned this to the teacher across the hallway and she said she wanted her class to come see it, so, i thought, why not. they weren't good plays by any stretch of the imagination but we're trying to kill time on the last day anyway. somehow more classes ended up hearing about them and coming to watch them. (the last day of intersession we're really looking for something to do to keep kids busy)
my kids sat through one another's plays three times that day and still hung on every word.

it was one of the oddest things that has ever happened to me as a teacher considering the class had only been together for two weeks. this is what you'd want to have happen in your class in the spring, or even by november when they've been together awhile. but not those first couple weeks. it was the right mix of kids- the right amount of students with great leadership qualities, the right amount of kids with good problem solving skills (i broke up no fights, i solved no "what if" problems).

the only thing i did as a teacher was say yes and agree to let them take over. i don't think anything they did was "measurable" in terms of testing and accountability. but it was a group of esol students who used their english to write a play, make the puppets and the props for the play, direct the play, and work together and problem solve so that they could perform.

i love intersession and the time it gives us outside of the curriculum to let kids be kids.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

the first of april

i hate april fools day.

i'm a very trusting person, so i tend to fall for people's pranks. since i started teaching i've learned to have a whole new hatred of the day. first graders have a very odd sense of humor. few of them have actually developed an adult sense of humor yet and so their day-to-day jokes usually involve words they find silly like "chicken", "zucchini" or "underwear". if you think i'm kidding go into a first grade classroom and in your most serious voice say one of the words. they'll die laughing and you'll be checking a mirror because you'll assume there has to be SOMETHING ELSE wrong with you that would elicit such giggles.

so, when you combine that sense of humor with april fools day you end up with a lot of "hey! look out! there is an elephant behind you!" jokes. all day.

this leaves you with three choices.

1) you can play along "oh no! not an elephant! oh man, you got me". this just encourages the rest of them to repeat the SAME joke OVER AND OVER again.

2) you can absolutely ignore that the child said anything and continue to teach. this usually makes them repeat it over and over again to see if maybe on the 100th millionth time you'll fall for it.

3) you can get angry, tell the child you are not falling for it, send child to thinking spot, declare that you are not playing april fools. this, of course, is simply an invitation to see if they can create greater pranks that can actually fool you.

so really, the best choice of all is to declare the day march 32nd or just ignore calendar time all together and hope that nobody told them about the day.

i was hoping to go with the last option but on the walk from the gym to the classroom with my morning intersession class i was told no less than 15 times that there was something in my hair/ someone was behind me/ there was something on my shoe/etc. (the only one i fell for was a little boy who told me his grandmother died. not cool).

i couldn't take an entire day of this. i thought about calling in sick right then and there at 8:30. but instead i did what good teachers know to be the best strategy: discuss and then distract.

so we decided to discuss april fools day and examine what it means. this discussion lead to a suggestion that we play a prank on the intersession coordinator (knowing that he has a great sense of humor). just getting them focused on this ended the "oh no! an elephant is coming in the room!" after a long discussion of all the things we could do (and listing all the things that are not ok to joke about- death, getting hurt, fire) i convinced them that we were going to do the best joke ever. i really had no idea what we were going to do, but as i listened to them talk i channeled frank mccourt from Teacher Man, who gave his students an assignment to write fake excuse notes.

my brilliant young minds were to write apology notes to the intersession coordinator apologizing for some horrible, horrible crime they did not commit. some apologized for bring their pet to school, others for bringing toys, some claimed to have broken computer equipment, others gave everyone chocolate and made them hyper, and my favorite apologized for bringing his wild african pit bull to school. they put so much effort into the details of these crimes. one very sweet girl who would never, ever even breath the wrong way wrote a front/back letter explaining everything her bunny had destroyed in the classroom. some went into detail explaining about how angry i was. you know, just to make it authentic.

"i am sorry that i got a leaf of poison ivy and gave it to the children"
the plan had been for us to line up and send two children at a time to the office until eventually my entire class was in there. sadly we ran into the intersession coordinator in the hallway who immediately figured out what was going on (but still played along). he apologized for not being in the office but directed us to take our letters to the secretary so she could discipline the children.

so my students, one by one, busted in on the poor office staff, who were biting their lips to keep from laughing as my innocent children claimed to have brought their baby brother to school, etc. the kids thought this was the funniest thing ever so they were laughing and proudly waving their fake crime letters at any adult who would listen. when someone responded, "wow, you are really bad!" they'd laugh even harder.
as we filed out of the office and back to the classroom they continued laughing. "man, we got them good!" i heard. and "best practical joke ever!!"

despite the obviousness of it all they still thought the joke worked.

and, i have to say, i'm feeling fairly pleased with myself. april fools day little first graders- i distracted you from your hours of painful jokes AND made you write using details.

"dear mr.____ i'm sorry i brought my meanest cat over and she scratched the wall and she scratched my friends"

little black dress

yesterday i mentioned to my afternoon intersession class that mr. lipstick and i would be going out to dinner to celebrate our 2 year anniversary. a little first grade girl looked at me and exclaimed,

"you're not wearing that, are you?"

"um, no, why, what do you think i should wear?"

"little black dress, black shoes, black purse"

guess what i ended up wearing?