Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"Tight on goals, loose on means" Part one of my thoughts on "Finding the Link"

I spent the morning live-tweeting "Finding the Link: Teacher Evaluation and Professional Development, an event hosted by Education Sector.

Let's be honest: getting to go downtown, occupying a spot at the bloggers table, chatting with great teachers from other states, listening to the education debate and sharing my thoughts via twitter? Totally different than my school-year day-to-day. There was no snot, no one asked me to tie their shoe, no fear of getting lice from those around me, no chance of suddenly having to leave what I was doing to sprint down the hallway after a run away child.

Live-tweeting in itself was an adventure. Re-reading over the twitter conversation (#esteach) made me dizzy. I was typing so fast while trying to record one thought at the same I was following the panelists conversation that I didn't realize my tweets were so disconnected and confusing. Some of them I don't have any memory of writing, and I can't quite piece together what I intended to say when I read back over them. Regardless, it was certainly an experience!

The entire morning left me with so much to think about that it is hard to boil down into one post. The whole question about teacher development and teacher evaluation and the role of the federal government/states/districts is so large, with so many subplots that it was difficult to even capture in the two hours.

The panelists we were reacting to were:
Scott Thompson, IMPACT, the new teacher evaluation system for the Washington, D.C., public schools
Brad Jupp, senior program adviser for teacher quality initiatives, U.S. Department of Education
Jen Mulhern, The New Teacher Project, who worked with New Haven on their new evaluation system.

To be honest I went into the whole event a bit nervous. I'm pretty skeptical of a lot of top-down initiatives on teaching, and even inside my own school I tend to subscribe to the philosophy "it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission." If you put your head down, do what you know is best, and teach your heart out, you'll usually end up doing the right thing. I have strong opinions on education policy, but that usually involves telling policy makers where to stick it. So, I was pleasantly surprised that, for the most part, I didn't find myself sucking in my breath and holding back from exploding about how far removed from education everyone was. It's happened before, and it's not pretty.

For the most part I was impressed with all three' panelist's insights into the teaching profession and their understanding of the picture as a whole, but I was particularly impressed with Brad Jupp. Many of his comments reflected an appreciation for everything that happens within a school, and the need to support, respect and trust the teachers. He compared not trusting educators to be a part of developing the solution to refusing to allow engineers to be a part of fixing a bridge.

Listening to Judd also gave me a clearer picture on the road the US Department of Ed is taking. As a teacher I've heard about Race to the Top, but honestly, it will be so long before it actually impacts my classroom practice that I haven't paid much attention. As Jupp talked about how districts themselves should take on comprehensive reform in order to improve as a whole, and how the educators themselves need to be a part of this process, he explained that they've created a structure and a goal, and want to give educators (states, districts, policy makers) the freedom to find any way they can to get to the end.

This method annoyed me at first (nobody understands what you want from us!! I wanted to screech) until I realized this method is a tool I love to use in the classroom. Give students an open ended task with a clear goal and sit back and watch what happens. Usually, the students go above and beyond my expectations and manage to do so creatively. Although, to be honest, the middle part- where all the creativity and problem solving skills are working themselves out- is extremely noisy, messy, and embodies exactly why I named my blog "organized chaos".

Judd explained that Arne Duncan's mantra that drives their department, is "Tight on goals, loose on means."

With first graders this process usually starts out in a few different ways.
The "structure-seekers" ask a lot of questions like "Where do I put my pencil?" "What is the right answer?" and "Do you want us to use blue paper or light blue paper?" while the "oh good, freedom! Let's see what we can do/get away with" group gets busy making something happen. Not necessarily the right thing, mind you, but paper gets cut, glue bottles are out, excited chatter starts. Then another group, of course, the "run and hiders" manage to sneak into the classroom bathroom, or into the classroom library hoping I wont notice they are entirely avoiding the project. Which is easy to do because I'm busy trying to answer the structure-seekers questions, and make sure the freedom group is not simply seeing if they can empty an entire glue bottle in one sitting. All the while, the "I have the right answer" group of children is walking around the room telling everyone else what to do with utmost confidence. And of course, because they are 6 and 7, they end up crying, stamping their feet, and swearing that they are not Susie/Jamie/Max's friend because Susie/Jamie/Max wont listen to their idea.

Which is, actually, somewhat similar to what's going on in the education-sphere as we all react to Race to the Top, and the (possible?) changes in Elementary and Secondary Education Act (The act formally known as NCLB).

Some states immediately got busy applying for RttT grants, while others refused to participate in the process. Some are not acknowledging that any change is occurring and will not until they've seen progress from other states, while some, who comfortably followed NCLB, are still waiting for specific instructions. Even in the room today, as I listened to the debate over how much students' standardized assessments should play into teacher evaluation I couldn't help feel that this how we are reacting to the discussion even on a personal level. Some of us are the bossy first graders announcing we know what the answer should and should not be. Some of us figure it will all play out in the end and we're just along for the ride, while others look at this as a blank check to start some change.

In first grade this all turns into a 4 ring circus, or, as I like to call it, Organized Chaos. ;) Eventually, everything starts to settle down. It takes some coaxing to get the "Structure Seekers" to try something outside their comfort level, while some good guided questions lead the "Freedom" group to reflect on what they are doing and make it meaningful. The Run-and-Hiders need to be given some leadership in the whole process, ("Don't you want to be the one to hand out the special paper when we're ready? Better get started on your own project then!") and the Bosses get some social-skills instruction and problem-solving strategies along the way. In the end, the product is usually worth it, and everyone gains a new skill outside their comfort zone.

Brad Jupp continued to talk about how the goal is to have teachers and districts wrestle with all aspects of these questions in order to solve these problems themselves. In other professions, he pointed out, when there is a problem no one says, "this is a deal breaker," instead they look at all aspects of a problem, acknowledge the trouble spots, look at the worst possible scenarios, and then examine how to make sure that doesn't happen.

I get what he's saying with this. I like it, and I think works when we are talking about the people actually making the decisions. Sadly, though, teachers do not feel like they have been a part of making those decisions, and so they feel they have no voice in problem solving how to make sure the worst does not happen in schools. Jupp touched on the voice the unions have in this process, but when was the last time, as a teacher, you felt the union gave you an opportunity to have a place at the decision making table? Most teachers join the union for protection from law suites.

Part of feeling that we do not have a voice is the NCLB culture, where we all still feel as though the government is inherently judging us as failures and that we are being treated like we are part of a machine. And to be honest, it wasn't until today that I realized that culture is changing. Inside schools we are still terrified of not making AYP, and desperately tracking data on different subgroups of students. On the ground, we haven't adapted to a new mindset yet.

Judd commented that teachers need to stop feeling as though it is them verse the management. And yes, this is true, but teachers feel that way for a reason. In some places in education management needs to realize that they are not against the teachers.

Listening to the panelists today I could sense the shift in culture. The two teacher-evaluation systems being discussed, one in New Haven and IMPACT in DC, are being put in place with the right tone and theory behind them. They are looking at what teachers need, where teachers are coming from, and how teachers can grow. They do not seem like systems that are only in place to get rid teachers, but instead seem like systems that are intended to make good teachers great teachers, and give professionals constructive feedback. I have my own doubts about both systems, but all three panelists seemed to understand that there are many ways to be an outstanding teacher, and that needs vary from school to school, district to district.

Perhaps turning educators loose with a goal in mind and telling them how to find their own way there is the answer. If it works it will not only allow school systems to meet these goals, but on their way to the end they will gain insights and create a structure and resources for how to solve problems and create change. I give my first graders open ended assignments in order to not just get a final product, but to force them to challenge themselves so they learn new skills. Maybe the shift from NCLB culture to RttT will give states and districts opportunity to further develop themselves so that in the future they will have a new problem solving framework in place.

Or, of course, maybe not.

There is so much more I floating inside my head, from the general discussion on professional development to the test scores question.

More posts are coming in a few days, after I've escaped into the blue ridge mountains for the weekend.

Part 2: Systems in place in New Haven and DC

Part 3: Testing (every one's favorite subject)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

More thoughts on professional development

I keep playing around in my head with a definition of meaningful professional development.

This is what I've come up with:

Meaningful professional development happens when teachers leave a training/meeting/Internet session feeling ownership of what they just learned. They are able to take what they learned and feel comfortable immediately applying it in their classrooms OR they know where to go to get more information/resources so that they can then immediately apply it in their classrooms.

Teachers should leave professional development with a fundamental understanding of why something works so that when they take it into their classrooms they can change it/adjust it/improve upon it to make it work with their classroom routines and their learners without changing the theory/philosophy/science behind it.

For example, if my special ed teammates and I give an in-service on creating behavior plans we need to explain why behavior plans work and how we develop behavior plans for particular students so that teachers leave being able to understand why a behavior plan works. It would be easier to make a set of different behavior plans, give them out to each teacher and tell them to use them as is. At first everyone would be happy with this method. Our training was short, painless, and gave teachers something to use immediately in their own classrooms. Our administrators could walk into a classroom and immediately know whether or not a teacher is using the new information because they will recognize the sticker charts we gave out to everyone. Teachers will be able to put something into use without any extra work on their part.

But then, a few weeks will go by and the teachers will be wondering why the behavior plans don't work. They may stop using them, or change them in a way that is not productive. Maybe it's easier for them to wait until the end of the day to give students the stickers they earned. Since we haven't explained to them that some students need the immediate reinforcement there is no reason for the teachers to think that waiting until the end of the day would hurt the student. The child's behavior continues to drive the teacher crazy. The principals will be frustrated that the teachers are not doing what they were told, and will tell the teacher to just use the behavior plan. The teacher, who has been using the behavior plan, knows it is not working, but continues to use it because the principal told her to. The behavior does not get any better. The cycle continues, with everyone looking like they are doing what they are suppose to be doing, but nobody actually doing anything meaningful.

Instead, what we need to do is explain the theory behavior making a behavior plan. We need to talk about collecting data, making decisions, the motivation behind particular behaviors, intrinsic and external motivation, etc, etc. THEN we discuss taking that information and putting it into the form of a behavior plan. THEN we need to cover how to monitor a behavior plan to make sure it works.

That is a much more painful training session than merely giving teachers copies of behavior plans.

But, it allows teachers to understand what they are doing. Now they can take our behavior plans and apply them in their classrooms. When something does not work they have the theory behind the plan to be able to make the appropriate changes. They learned how to monitor behavior, and are able to actually improve the behavior plan to make it meaningful.

The principals, of course, have to be comfortable knowing that they can not go into a room and see the same behavior plan on the desk of every student with behavior problems. They have to trust their teachers to make intelligent decisions within their classroom.

The behaviors will improve, the teachers will feel empowered, and the principals wont have to think about it again. Of course, there's the scary part. If a principal wants to have full control over every classroom, then either the principal needs to have the same understanding of why something works, or needs to be comfortable knowing that although they do not understand it, they know their teachers are using their best judgement and that they understand it.

This holds true for all professional development, not just behavior plans. The most powerful reading in-services teach us how to understand our young readers so we can make decisions about how to teach them in our classes. Not how to turn the pages in a teachers manual. How do we recognize when a student is having difficulty with decoding verse comprehension? How do we know when to teach fluency and when a student is ready to learn about plurals?

Good teachers are student-watchers, and good professional development gives us more skills to understand what we see when we are watching our students. Good administrators recognize that their good teachers are student-watchers and not page-turners. They have to trust that what is happening in the classrooms is the result of well-thought-out lessons even if the classroom does not match a teacher's manual.

Summer Reading Recommendation: Sammy & His Behavior Problems

Now that I have an entire summer stretching before me with nothing to do I finally found time to read Sammy and His Behavior Problems. Responsive Classroom sent this book to me months ago, and although I've carried it around for months I've never managed to sit down and give it the reading it deserved.

Finally, armed with sun block and hours by the pool, I was able to indulge.

**You may not know, but I am a bit obsessed with Responsive Classroom. After going through the week long introductory training 6 years ago I tried it in my own classroom, realized how amazing it truly is, bought all of the books, took two more of their week-long training classes (RC 2 and RC Literacy), and became an RC cult follower. I'm pretty sure I can quote some of their books by heart. Recently a student teacher was in our school library lamenting over how nervous she was to start her first year of teaching. Our librarian, also an RC convert, and I began throwing books at her.
"You wont survive without The First Six Weeks"
"Wait, and The Morning Meeting book"
"I absolutely do not start the year without this book on setting up the classroom!"
"Oh, and once the year has started you'll need to read the book on Academic Choice."
"The Power of Our Words! Now that's one that changed my teaching forever!"
"Here's an amazing one on getting parents involved..."
The poor girl's face became even more panicky than it was before, and she left the library with a large stack of books. I'd feel bad, except that I wish someone had given me that huge stack of books before I started teaching.**

Sammy and His Behavior Problems
is a new type of book for RC. While most of their books focus on a particular topic, Sammy is a narrative of a teacher's year with one child with difficult behaviors. Through her narrative Caltha Crowe is able to do what all mentor teachers are trained to do when working with student teachers: explain her thinking. She paints the picture of what is occurring in the classroom, and then steps back and reflects on what she sees through the Responsive Classroom lens. Then she decides how to act, and narrates the next episode with Sammy, all the while explaining to the reader the thoughtfulness she put into each of her actions.

As a RC junkie I could recognize the RC language throughout the book, and could cross-reference each RC book/theory- "Oh, she's using Academic Choice!", or, "I remember talking about that in RC 2 training."

Crowe manages to weave RC theory into practice, creating a clear picture of how it looks when used in a classroom. And not just any classroom- when it is used in a classroom that includes children learning to manage their own behavior (which, actually, is any classroom, because we all have children like Sammy.)

What I love about the book is that anyone who takes an RC class, or hears about RC theory and asks skeptically, "Yeah, but that wont work with my kids because ________," could read Crowe's book and gain an understanding of the how RC theory works even in the most difficult circumstances. The book paints a picture of what Responsive Classroom looks like and sounds like when put into place throughout the year. If you leave RC thinking, "That all sounds great, but I just don't see how it is suppose to flow together", Crowe erases that question through her year-long narrative.

In the book Crowe shows us that teaching is a fine balance of studying your students and deciding how to teach based on your observations, setting clear expectations, and then letting students make your classroom their own within the limits and structure you've created for them. Throughout the book Crowe shares the concerns we all have- do we tell a student how something must be because it makes us feel better, or do we give the student the resources to figure it out themselves? Crowe does a beautiful job explaining how she set up a structure that gave Sammy the information he needed to become an independent learner. She allows him to determine his own organization strategies, develop his own reminder signals in the classroom, and brainstorm his own solutions to problem behavior. She's not simply controlling his behavior so that he and the other students can learn, she is teaching him how to control his behavior, a skill he will use the rest of his life.

Crowe writes, "My goal is that he behave appropriately for himself, not for me." reminding us that there is a growth step between good behavior, and self-regulated good behavior.

What many of us love about Lucy Calkins is that her books give us specific examples of phrases and wording she uses when she teaches. She allows us to see a conversation she has with a student where every word is meaningful. Crowe's book shares this exact strategy. From reading her conversations with Sammy I have powerful yet simple language in my head I will be able to use with my students. I have examples to fall back on when I am frustrated with a student and am either speechless or am fighting the urge to lecture. Instead, I can picture Crowe's simple, clear reminders, questions, and conferences to make my own student interactions that much more powerful.

To be honest, my only disappointment in the book is that it is written in present-tense, which made it initially difficult to jump into. Once I became accustomed to the writing style the book flew by, and I found myself reading quickly wanting to know what Sammy would do next and how Crowe would turn it into a teachable moment.

I've asked my mother, a second grade teacher, to read the book and tell me what she thinks. Although she reads the Responsive Classroom newsletter she has not had any RC training. I'm curious to know what someone without an RC background thinks of the book. Will it give her enough information to dive into RC based-teaching? Or without an RC background does the book leave the reader confused? I'm excited to know what she thinks, and I'll get back to you with her thoughts! Ohhh... maybe a guest post if I can talk her into it ;)

Happy Reading!

Friday, June 25, 2010

snapshots of the last day

The last day of school, much like the first, is always a whirlwind. The kids arrived in a mixture of their best clothes, and outfits that said: I'm headed to the pool as soon as I finish with this school nonsense. We were all excited, giddy, and a bit sad. There is always little structure since the day ends before lunch, and classrooms stay busy cleaning tables, reading books, or making last minute memory books of the year. Anything to occupy everyone for a few hours.

Watching the graduating fifth graders is always a highlight of the day. Most come fully outfitted in their very best- whether it is a new dress, an old flower-girl dress, or navy pants with a black blazer. They all take the promotion ceremony very seriously, and walk through the hallways when they arrive that morning as though they are already 10 years older than they were yesterday.

One of my jumpers arrived in a full tuxedo.

I tried to talk to all my former students and parents. Since our school is so transient only 10 of my former first graders from that year finished 5th grade at the think-tank. A few days earlier I'd given them each a letter with a set of pictures of them from first grade. It had been amazing to watch them pour over snapshots of their former selves, giggling about how silly we'd been in first grade- "why am I making that crazy face?" their embarrassed fifth grade self grimaced. One boy looked at me and said, quite seriously, "You know, I've changed a lot since then. I've become a better learner."

In talking to his teachers I learned that was true. In first grade he hadn't quite taken on the attitude that school is important, but somewhere along the way he managed to figure it out. I've watched this change in a lot of children, but I've never had anyone mention they realize it before. I wonder how many kids can recognize their growth.

Back in the first grade and kindergarten classrooms there the flurry of end-of-the-year activity. The story-teller saw me walk by his room and popped his head out to say hello. "Mrs. Lipstick," he moaned, "I think I'm gonna miss you! You were my three-year teacher!"

What will I do without him?? It has been 3 years of receiving his whispered commentary throughout the day. From his first year of kindergarten when his comments all pertained to being abducted by aliens the night before, to this year in first grade when he followed me around the classroom asking questions about whatever nonfiction book he was reading.

The worst part of the day was loading Amazing onto her bus. As her wheelchair rose into the air on the power-lift we watched her sad eyes scan the crowd for her friends. She's made so many incredible friends this year, and was with a group of girls who showed maturity beyond their 5 years in how they adapted their play to include Amazing, without being condescending or too motherly. Their play was somehow completely natural without any adult intervention. Watching Amazing's face as the bus doors closed I could tell she knew how wonderful her group of friends had been. I think we all hope that her friends at her new school are equally wonderful and inclusive.
The bus would not let anyone ride with her for liability reasons, so we watched it pull away- small, strong Amazing on a full sized bus all by herself, carrying no one but her and the driver. Almost a metaphor for Amazing's life- her, by herself, strong and brave, while those around her worry about little things, wishing they could do more.
I lost it when the almost-empty bus pulled away. She is a child you get to teach once in a lifetime. I am going to truly miss her.

Once the halls were empty an uneasiness fell over our school. They were announcing our new principal that afternoon and we all stood around, waiting and wondering. We compared notes trying to predict who it would be- did we think it would be our fabulous assistant principal, or someone new? What had been overheard in the office? Did anyone read anything from the substitute Principal's face? What were the principals in other schools saying?

We sat, almost unable to eat, waiting for the future of the think-tank to be decided. Finally, we slowly walked to the library, knowing that once we were there we would know- no words would need to be said- there would be a stranger in the room, or there wouldn't be.

I'll write more about this later- I have so much to say about school leadership. But I will say that in the end we all cried for joy and felt ourselves truly relax for the first time since our principal announced her retirement. The new principal is our AP- the think-tank will stay close to the same, if not get better.

And now it's summer. A week later I'm slowly sipping my coffee, reading for fun, telling myself to get to work on my to-do list. It's funny how when the stress of the school year comes to a screeching halt I feel utterly useless and lost. It will take a week or so to become comfortable in the slower paced lifestyle.

Not that I'm complaining :)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Teaching Problem Solving

Yesterday I heard Seth Godin interviewed on the radio for his new book, Linchpin. (As soon as I finish Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest I'm headed out to buy this book, so expect more later!)

Everything Godin has to say about education rings true. He discussed how the model of education we follow now was set up to support the industrial revolution. What we need now, he argues, are problem solvers.

I could not agree more. It made me miss having my own classroom, where I could truly dive into teaching problem solving. I'm re-posting an entry I wrote on teaching problem solving in the classroom because when I wrote it, 3 years ago, I don't think anyone was actually reading my blog :)

problem solvers

In my graduate and professional development classes I'd heard about elementary IB programs. I was fascinated by their method of having one open-ended question that is examined in every subject during the entire year. I decided to try it and chose a very open question, "What is a problem solver?"

This was simple to incorporate in first grade. We approached reading decoding and comprehension strategies as 'problem solving'. Word study and spelling was also problem solving, as was writing... 'does it make sense? how you can solve that problem?' Science was also easy to incorporate, every unit of study started by discussing what we noticed in nature. Then we talked about how we could learn more about what we noticed. In social studies we looked at people as 'famous problem solvers'. We had a problem solver wall and every person (other than Helen Keller, more on that later) we studied we made a poster for and added it up there so we could refer to it throughout the year.

I found this hugely successful. It gave us a common language and asked the kids to create skills they could apply to every aspect of their lives. Can't do something, don't know... can you be a problem solver and figure it out? Studying famous Americans gave us definitions of what a problem solver is, reading and math gave us a chance to practice it, and science gave us a chance to develop higher-level questions where we could work through strategies for finding answers. I loved the inquisitive nature this created and how it developed thinkers, wonderers, and triers. It gave kids permission for things to not be perfect, because you could always be a problem solver to fix it. It was ok to take risks. It also gave them control of the classroom, asking them to look at problems, take responsibility for them and fix them.

Where it was most effective was giving us a common language with social skills. Can't find a chair? Can you be a problem solver? Someone stepped on your toe? Can you be a problem solver and figure out what to say? Spilled crayons on the floor? That's fine, just be a problem solver and clean it up.

For my young scholars and kiddos ready for higher-level thinking I saw so much growth in their thinking patterns. They were excited to approach new topics and frequently asked questions showing that they were looking at things from every aspect. Some even wanted to tell us about how their family members were problem solvers.

The common language this created was also great for my special education students. I was worried that asking them to 'be a problem solver' left things too open ended and unsettling. Yet, it seemed because we used this language all the time it actually gave them a sense of flexibility to help them get through the day. My little autistic friend frequently asked us "Be problem solver!" when someone can't find a spot on the rug or a chair in the classroom.

If I was going to do it again there are things I would change. We needed more discussions in the beginning of the year on good problem solving and bad problem solving. One little kiddo took problem solving into her own hands and started pinching people to get them to do what she wanted. Not ok, not solving the problem...

On Friday a head start teacher told me that one of my children was visiting her. After watching her try to put stuffed animals in a box my little one told her, "Just be a problem solver. Maybe try another box". If nothing else, hopefully studying problem solvers has given them a life skill that will help them take responsibility, be creative, and show initiative later in life.

~~ ~~ ~~ ~~
*sigh* I loved teaching problem solving. Re-reading this makes me desperate to go back into the classroom... Then again, I'd have to give up teaching all my amazing kiddos with special needs...

*It's interesting to go back and read my writing from when I first started. I cringe at some of my word choices, and my non-person first language. It's funny what happens when you begin writing almost every day. We always tell the kids that, turns out it's true... who knew? ;)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Another year?

As the year ended my partner-in-crime and I mulled over our children's test scores. For the most part, the ones we knew would need an extra year proved that in their end of year testing, and the ones ready to move on showed that as well. We'd met with most parents to discuss the possibility of having their child repeat kindergarten, and most had agreed, although some did so reluctantly.

Deciding to have a child stay behind is always tricky. We have to consider their English language skills, how much they grew over the past year, and whether or not another year of kindergarten will be beneficial. Did they begin kindergarten this year having no experience with English, or with the world outside of their apartment? Was their first year in our school more sitting back and observing? Will they be more engaged learners if they stay behind?

To be honest, I usually lean to the side of "another year can't hurt anyone". My aunt, a middle-school math teacher, had her son spend two years in kindergarten on account of her experience with middle school boys. She'd found that they were too immature to handle the middle school work load, and would do best if were allowed time to mature. My cousin, who spent 2 years in kindergarten, finished his law degree at a prestigious law school and is now working in a law firm in New York City. She clearly made a wise choice.

Not all parents see it this way. Many see it as a red flag that their child is a failure. Particularly those parents who are accustom to the South American school systems that have no problem holding a child back year after year in the same grade. These children enter our school at least 2-3 years in a grade behind where they should be, which does not benefit anyone. These parents seem extremely concerned with how their community and family will view their child, and seem to feel that once their family learns their child was retained their child will be written off as "stupid". Sometimes they come to us with another parent whose child is moving on to first grade, but whose child is in the special education program. "This child is smarter than this one, but he's going on and he's not!" both mothers will agree, and we try to explain that children in the special education program do not usually repeat a grade.

This year I finished up my third year with two first graders- both had repeated kindergarten. It was wonderful to be able to stay with their families as their children flourished in their second year of kindergarten and went on to do great things in first grade. There is nothing like sitting down with a parent and saying, "As you know, when we first started working with your child we were very concerned about x, y, and z. You and your child have worked so hard, both in school and out, and now we are amazed at how much x, y, and z have improved." Those are some of my favorite conversations on the job.

This year my partner-in-crime and I thought we knew in December of a little one who would need to be retained. I've written about her before here and here, and how it took her from August to March to learn all of the letters in her name. We were extremely concerned about her, and started the discussions for retention in December so that her parents would understand it was a possibility when the time came. She's an amazing child and we were actually thrilled to have her for another year. Then we looked at her end of year test scores. In March something clicked, and she, well, bloomed. She rocked her end of year assessments. We stood, pouring over her test pages, sadly realizing there was no way we could retain her. She was a rock star who would have to go on to first grade. (Clearly we were happy for her, but, oh, the sadness in knowing she was no longer ours!)

Then we started to examine another child's test scores and found ourselves truly stumped at what to recommend to the parent. She'd made significant progress this year, and she also has a disability that limits her cognitive and physical abilities. Her preschool teachers felt she would be lucky to identify the letters in her name by the end of kindergarten, which she mastered very early in the year. In many ways she had a successful kindergarten year.

Typically we do not hold children back if they are in the special education program, so technically we should not have given this little one another thought. But something felt wrong about sending her to first grade. She is so smart and so capable that sending her to first grade seemed to be sentencing her to a lifetime of being behind her peers, of always being in the lower reading groups, needing extra help, of never reading on grade level. Yet another year of kindergarten could firm up those essential skills she needs, and is capable of having, to bring herself up to grade level. She would then go on to first grade with a firm foundation to build on, allowing her to continue working at grade level. It was because we had so much faith in her as a learner, and because we had such high expectations with her, that we wondering if another year would benefit her more than moving on to stay with her same-age peers.

Every morning we'd decide something different. One day I was adamant that she needed to stay behind. The next I was sure that sending her on was the right choice. Every angle I examined made me change my mind.

So, finally, we sat down with her parent and had a very honest conversation. It was amazing to have a conversation with a parent that was so open and honest. We were not trying to convince her of anything, we were merely trying to give her as much information as possible to allow her to make an informed decision. We walked her through what developmentally appropriate reading and math skills were essential to be successful in kindergarten and first grade. We looked at her child's progress and examined possibility that aspects of her disability were holding her back from reaching these essential skills. We discussed the first grade curriculum and how not having these building blocks would impede her. We went over the Least Restrictive Environment in her IEP and discussed how we promised to keep her with her same-age peers, but that asking her to stay back another year would not do this. We looked at her emotional development and analyzed how she would react to each situation.

In the end I think both my-partner-in-crime and I felt good about the conference. We'd presented as much information as we could. The mother promised to think about it and decide. In the end she decided she wanted her child to go on. I still don't know if this is the right decision, but I feel good that we gave mom as much information as we could to let her make the final decision for her daughter, who she knows better than we do.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Wait...professional development is suppose to be linked to our performance reviews?

Wait... what performance reviews?

I've been asked to participate in an event at Education Sector with three other teacher-bloggers. We will be given the first chance to respond to five panelists who are discussing the link between professional development and teacher evaluation.

My first thought was, "Professional development and teacher evaluation are suppose to be linked? "

(My second was, "Education Sector is brilliant for actually bringing in teachers to be a part of the discussion. How frequently do these sort of events occur with only the policy maker's voices being heard?")

I've been mulling this all over in my head, trying to figure out exactly what the link is, and what it should be. There are, of course, a few issues that come to mind.

1) The quality and motivation behind professional development

2) The quality and meaningfulness of the teacher evaluation process

3) Good administration

Here's the thing with professional development... it can be awesome, well done, meaningful, and immediately apply to your classroom needs. OR, it can be a magnificent waste of every one's time. We've all sat through the demeaning professional development sessions where consultants were brought in from an outside company. They arrive with the immediate belief that because they are talking to a room full of teachers they must speak to them as though they are speaking to kindergarten students. There are lots of games, "turn and talk" moments, hand clapping, (eye rolling), and the information that is delivered is so far from anything you could use in the classroom that the most meaningful act you get out of the entire session is working on your to-do list under the table.

When a school system brings in mandatory professional development for all their teachers, it tends to be because they are jumping on the newest education band-wagon. Many times the people who decided to bring in the professional development are not in the classroom (or even a school) themselves, and are disconnected from the meaningful instruction actually occurring within the school walls. We've all sat through long, tedious professional development sessions introducing us to the latest and greatest in education that were actually 1) what we were already doing in the classroom 2) almost impossible to implement and 3) designed by someone who has never heard of Piaget, or has any understanding of a five year old's fine motor skills.

Meaningful professional development tends to come when a principal or a school identifies an actual need and then strives to find the perfect development opportunity to fill that need. (Kind of like when we make instruction decisions based on our students' assessments). Professional development that reacts to the needs of the school is always the most powerful (particularly if the teachers are the ones to identify the need).

What I believe works the best at my school to actually change teacher instruction is the Literacy Collaborative model (LC). LC is based out of the University of Ohio (I believe). Every teacher in my school takes an LC class every year. Your first year at my school, your LC 1 class amounts to a college class, meeting almost every other week for the entire school year for 3 hours a session. The second year in the program the classes meet a little less, and then you entire "LC 3 and beyond" where the amount you meet lessens, but as long as you are a teacher at the school you are required to participate at least once a month in your LC class. The class structure ensures we are all on the same page with our literacy training, creates a "life-time learner" atmosphere where even experienced teachers are still investigating new literacy ideas and reflecting on their old practices, and opens up meaningful literacy dialogue throughout the school.

Along with the monthly professional development outside of school hours, there is an LC coach who works in one classroom for 2 1/2 hours a day, every day. The coach is another teacher in that classroom for the language arts block, dealing with discipline problems, lack of air conditioning, sleepy children, hyper children, report cards, parent conferences, etc. She is a co-teacher who plans lessons with the classroom teacher, spends time developing meaningful centers, analyzing what centers worked and what didn't, and dealing with all the drama classroom teachers deal with on a daily basis. Basically, she knows what's up.

When she's not in her own classroom she spends the rest of the day coaching other teachers. We sign up for coaching times, identify what we want help with, and she comes into our rooms, observes our students, teaches lessons for us so we can observe her methods, tests out theories with us, listens to us, and gives us feedback.

This is always meaningful because our coaches know exactly what it is like to be in the classroom. They know that when they tried to teach the lesson last week the fire alarm went off and the kids never calmed down. Because they know exactly what is happening they can give truly meaningful feedback. We can't exactly roll our eyes and say "that wont work in my classroom" because they have a classroom too, they worked out the kinks with the same active kids we have. They also are not operating under a one-size fits all professional development model. When they come in to coach you they want to know what YOU are working on. Just because they introduced a new word study lesson in LC class last week does not mean that is what they will focus on in your room. If you're class is having difficulty retelling simple stories that's what they'll work on with you. It's meaningful because it actually, immediately applies to your own classroom.

Our math-team is also actively working on engaging in this type of model as well. It works because our coaches become our teammates.

So, I've always believed this type of professional development works, but it never really occurred to me that it was suppose to somehow be entwined with our evaluations. Evaluations and professional development honestly do seem very far apart. Evaluations are an after-thought, a quick conversation with the principal twice a year (if you are on cycle).

The reviews we get from our admin might not be tied to our professional development, but because we are working so closely with our literacy coaches you'd better believe we are putting what they teach into practice. There is nothing like the literacy coach walking into your room and saying, "What's up with your word wall? No new words this week?" Our coaches take care of a problem before it is big enough to get to the administration. Why wait until evaluation cycle to hear that you're not doing something correctly? They take care of it immediately.

It comes back to the meaningfulness of the evaluations & the quality of your administration. If your administration has put enough in place so that you are receiving constant feedback and growth opportunities throughout the year, the evaluation process becomes just paperwork. If there is a big problem it will be documented here, but otherwise it will be taken care of throughout the year through coaching or through quick check-ins with teachers.

Of course, the administration also needs to hire teachers who are active learners, who are willing to receive constructive feedback throughout the year. They also have to hire coaches who are willing to be humble when relating with teachers, yet firm and direct so that teachers take them seriously.

In my husband's office they experience 360 reviews once a year. They receive feedback not just from who they directly report to, but also from their co-workers on their team, those who report to them, and those they work closely with in another firms. This insures that they cannot just look like they are doing their job in their boss's eye, but also that they work well with their teammates, respect those around them, distribute the workload fairly, and are truly doing what they say they are doing.

I think it's brilliant. It takes everyone a lot of time to write reports on everyone else, but from what I understand they all take it seriously, and when they receive feedback from their teammates they take that even more seriously.

In a way our work with a coach works out much like my husband's review process. We are not just relying on feedback from one person who may not have a full understanding of our day-to-day work in the classroom.

... I'm going to stop there. It is summer break after all, and so it's time for another cup of coffee and a few hours of reading for fun on my balcony. I thought I had little to say on the subject, but turns out I could keep typing for hours. More later...

Monday, June 21, 2010

and it's begun

It's the first official day of summer break. In fact, it's my first full day of a full summer break since I became a teacher. Although I did not start teaching at my year-round-think tank school, I transferred there for my second year of teaching.

I've mentioned this before, but it continues to be true: I am terrified.

What am I going to do with myself until September now that we are no longer year-round?

I'm use to a few lazy weeks in the very beginning of summer, some semi-productive weeks, and then, finally, begging my principal to let me into the school early because I have to do something before I go insane. The begging, boredom, and need to be working usually begins in mid-July. This summer, mid-July will be mid-way through the summer.

I'm worried I'll run off and join the circus.

So far I've spent hours re-reading a "not-quite-trash but close-to-it" book and telling myself that after "just one more chapter" I'll get up and do laundry, research funding for grad school, write a meaningful blog post (this doesn't count), shower, bake cookies, unload the dish washer, etc, etc. Um... , so yea, I've managed to shower.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

decisions, decisions

Back in October I wrote about the phd programs I was looking into. I spent the year writing essays, ordering academic records & test scores, and submitting my applications to two different grad schools.

One is in-state, less than 5 minutes from my current school. An easy commute & in-state tuition. How can you go wrong?

The other is in DC, which means out of state tuition, as well as commuting into the city and trying to find parking in order to attend classes. Or late nights waiting on the metro and then the bus to take me home.

I have been accepted into both of them, and am desperately trying to decide what to do.

The absolute logic side of life tells me to go to the in-state program. Then again, the absolute logic side of life tells me to not get a phd at all, and enjoy my life as it is.

Sometimes logic is stupid.

When I discovered the DC program two years ago I immediately knew I had to go. Part of the program's description is:

The program incorporates the changing knowledge landscape of human growth and development by offering opportunities to translate and apply new neuroscience research for populations at risk for atypical development and learning processes. The special education curriculum and student research opportunities are aligned with developing knowledge about the plasticity of the brain and neurological processes as they relate to cognition, language and social-affective development. The course work is designed to deepen knowledge of disability in society and understanding of the response of social institutions to atypical development.

When I first read that I wanted to cry. I want to take those classes. I want that knowledge.

If it was not for that description I would not have even considered a phd program. Maybe another masters in a few years, but why get a phd?

In fact, getting a phd can actually make me a less desirable applicant in some school districts because I would require a higher pay check. More education will actually make it harder to get a job in education.

And if I want to leave schools? What are the chances I'll get a job that pays better than my public school salary? So I'll pay lots of money to educate myself out of having the job I love, and possibly educate myself out of getting paid a somewhat comfortable salary.

So what am I thinking?

But how do I NOT go? Ever since I've learned about this program it's been almost all I've thought about. As I finished my masters courses I would occasionally go back to the website just to read and re-read the program description and the course catalogue. I want this. I want the knowledge, the opportunities it may open up, the challenge, the experience.

I could of course, go half-way, and settle for the in-state program, getting a phd and not going into extreme debt. But if the program is not perfect, what is the purpose of going? I don't necessarily want to have a phd, I want the knowledge of the DC program.

Do I need to be an adult and make the grown up decision of not going into debt?
Or can I go after what I want?

Any one know of someone who wants to pay for me to get my doctorate? Any grants out there that will help me? Any one looking to hire someone for the summer so I can make some extra cash?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

growth and change

If you turn your head to the side (I have no idea why blogger insists on making my pictures be vertical when I took them horizontal. Why on earth does blogger automatically make pictures of students' art work sit sideways? It happens every time. Can anyone out there help me?)... you can see the self portrait one of our five year olds drew in the beginning of the year. Check out the arms coming out of his head, the large fingers, the lack of neck, and the skinny legs. For August we were thrilled with this drawing, don't get me wrong. But now turn your head to the side again...

Same kid, in June. notice the neck, the small fingers, the legs with feet, the appropriate facial features, the details of hair.

This is why I love kindergarten.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

praise & play

On Friday afternoon I sat down with Fabulous Friend during their free-play time. She'd chosen to play block buddies, which is like a primary version of tanagrams where the student has to put a set of blocks together to match a picture on a card. Fabulous Friend was doing ok, but not necessarily soaring with the task. It was Friday, I was tired, and since I couldn't think of anything else to do I sat down beside her when she asked me if I wanted to play with her. (I love kindergartners take the "good friends ask someone to play" so seriously that they apply it to adults as well).

After watching her work for a few moments I found myself giving her mindless feedback. "Wow, look at you, awesome!" As I heard the words come out of my mouth I regretted them immediately. This was the perfect opportunity to experiment with the meaningful praise CarolDweck discusses in her book, Mindset.

In one of the early chapters in her book she discusses a study she conducted where she gave two groups of students a set of brain-puzzles. One group was praised with "wow, you are so smart!" types of praise, while the other was given " Wow, what a hard worker you are. Look how you turned that piece and considered all the angles..." etc. Then the puzzles were taken away and the two groups were given the option of a new set of puzzles- they could choose a harder set of puzzles, or an easier set of puzzles. The students who were praised for how smart they were chose the easy set of puzzles, while the students praised for their hard work chose the harder set of puzzles.

As I watched Fabulous Friend work I tried to channel my inner-Carol Dweck and give Fabulous Friend specific praise for what she did to build the block picture, as well as praising her hard work and dedication. I shifted from the generic "wow, you are smart praise!" to more meaningful praise, and as I did I could visibly see Fabulous Friend change her method. The more I praised her for her hard work the longer she held each piece, the more she double checked the picture, the more she worked carefully to put each piece in place. It was as though she changed right in front of my eyes. When we began the game, no less than ten minutes before, she was rushing through the puzzles quickly, not attending to where she put each block, and looking around the room as she worked, even when I gave her "you're so smart" praise. Yet as I turned to using "hard worker" praise she continued to grow into it, until she was able to complete a puzzle without my help, and without my prompting her to check that she put a piece on the correct side. She stopped looking around the room and became more engaged in the task.

In a short period of time she changed her work habits for one task. What happens if we continue this feedback throughout her day, praising her for her hard work? What happens when we use this with all children?

It also occurred to me that free-play is such a powerful time to give students this type of praise. It is when they are doing something by choice, which means they are more likely to be engaged and excited about the activity. They are more relaxed, and their brains are more awake & stimulated. Free-play is the perfect opportunity to begin to change our friend's mindsets to make them proud to do hard things.

death of a coffee maker

Mr. Lipstick and I love our coffee. We've spent years perfecting our coffee preparing skills and have gotten it down to a science. First, we heat up the milk, and then froth it so it's nice and foamy. Then we add Just Coffee, our favorite brand, which not only is fair trade, shade-grown & from an organization we trust, but is also delicious. Then, we add sugar and I like to sprinkle the top with cinnamon.

It's the perfect morning ritual, and the ideal way to start the day.

Especially a day when there are 4 days of school left, kids are crazy, it's hot outside, we're practicing readers theater plays all afternoon in first grade, and we have a million things to do before the end of the year on Friday.

Sadly, our coffee maker, which we've loved for 3 years, has died a slow, painful death. 3 or 4 months ago we noticed it would decide to turn off mid-brew, or would not turn on when we first got up in the morning. We've gone to extreme measures to bring it back to life, including talking to it sweetly, yelling at it, bargaining with it, and threatening it's life. Since it is plugged into a socket with one of those reset buttons we've been able to literally shock it back to life every morning for 2 months. It will look dead and unresponsive, but one, two, or ten shocks with the circuit and it again brews the perfect cup.

Until today.

Mr. Lipstick woke up to my "coaching" this morning.

"This is it! It's do or die. Go big or go home. You can do it. Just one more morning. Two more cups. This is for real. Come on, coffee maker, you can do it. Just one more time. For old times. Don't leave us now. Don't go toward the light...."

You get the picture. He was not amused.

I am bleary eyed and coffee-less.

It's going to be a long day.

Monday, June 14, 2010

What the students think...

I call our school a think-tank for many reasons, and I truly believe we have the best school out there with our amazing leadership, our collaboration, focus on the students, and determination. My opinion, of course, is just an opinion, with nothing more to go on than "we rock" and "i heart my school".

Lately though we've been struggling to keep our heads above water. Along with the typical end-of-year stressers (report cards, packing up the room, completing testing, end of year picnics, field days, readers theater, etc, etc, etc) we've also been dealing with our principal retiring, not knowing who our new principal will be, meeting an interim principal, preparing to change our calendar from year-round to a traditional schedule, all while knowing budget cuts for supplies, professional development, etc are dwindling. Let's talk about stress.

Today one of our amazing guidance counselors shared the results of a survey she did with the 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders. She asked them, in survey monkey, what they liked best about our school. There was one "recess, lunch, and breakfast" response (with the BEST spelling of recess I've ever seen), but for the most part the comments gave me chills. Our kids, who say it best, who are not a part of the stress, and drama, and who will always be with us despite what happens to our budget, know our school. And love our school.

Some of their comments (with original spellings, keep in mind, most of our students are learning English):

~ The teacher always sticks up for yopu.
~... that the teachers are very kind, we could get a very good education.
~ ... is the teachers the way they listen to you and they can't be mean and they help u with you problems.
~ is to have teachers that care for you.
~ the teachers make games that are educatinol and fun
~ is the teachers make u fell safe
~lovely teachers

and those were just the comments I was able to copy down in a hurry before my afternoon IEP began...

A rush of perspective came flooding back to me as I read the list. Our kids, the ones who we are here for, appreciate us. They think we listen to them. They think we make them feel safe. Even when we've been stressed beyond what we thought we could handle, we kept that away from the kids. They still feel safe, loved, and listened to within our walls.

Our kids come from rough homes. The neighborhoods around our school are not the safest. They may not speak the same language as their parents, so they have no one to listen to their childhood woes. Their parents work many jobs, and most lack the needed funding to buy books, healthy dinners, and school supplies. Yet they know we love them. We've sent the message that our school is a safe place, that we will listen to their concerns, that we are giving them a good education, and that we care for them.

What more can you ask for in a school? We may not make AYP (again) despite all our efforts. But we've accomplished even more than that if we were able to create a safe learning environment for children who may not feel safe or loved anywhere else.

I heart my school, my awesome co-workers, and our amazing kids.

** ** **
Our awesome guidance counselor also shared another question from the survey that asked the students to reflect on our guidance program. There were many amazing comments, but this is the only one I was able to write down...

~it made me be better person in my life. It chage me how I was the past years to now. it,s somebody grew out of me and change3d my life.

Can you ask for anything more?

Sunday, June 13, 2010


I have a problem. I never seem to leave my teacher-self behind. If we're honest we all do this. The looks we give to unruly kids in the grocery store, the smiles we share with little ones reading the signs out loud on the metro, the way we so quickly go into kid-speak when a child is near.

This afternoon my neighborhood courtyard held a small barbecue. Our four-almost-five year old neighbor had already worn out Mr. Lipstick with batting practice, and was moving on to attempt to motivate me to pitch to her despite the ridiculous heat. So, forever a teacher, I ask her if she's ever read Knuffle Bunny. We shared a brief moment of "I LOVE THAT BOOK! Me TOO!" and I asked if she had it. She did, but didn't seem thrilled when I suggested that she run to get the book instead of us playing baseball. But, after a few of my teacher-like suggestions she eventually ran off into her house to find the book.

A few minutes later she returned to the barbecue with a book, but it was NOT Knuffle Bunny.

It was Everybody Farts.

She grinned, handing me the book proudly in front of all our neighbors. "Read this one too me!" she declared, and then began turning the pages to explain the intricacies of passing gas, and making the dramatic tooting noises to go with it.

My neighbors watched our little reading adventure with amusement. Pictures were snapped. Jokes were made.

I was schooled by a four year old. That's the last time I try to bring out my teacher-self at a summer picnic.

Friday, June 11, 2010


Our amazing speech pathologist was meeting with third graders the other day and found herself discussing bedtimes. After learning they each went to bed WAY to late for a third grader (way to late for a teacher as well!) she gave them a quick lecture on how important it is to get a good night sleep. She ended it with,
"It is very important to be well-rested."

One of them gasped in horror. "We'll be arrested if we don't go to sleep early?"

The temptation to agree that yes, they would be arrested without a good night sleep would have been way, way too much for me. How much do you not want to agree, "Yes, absolutely. So tonight, go to bed early or I'm calling the cops."

Alas, as she is a good, moral teacher, she corrected his misunderstanding.

We all laughed about this, and then found ourselves reflecting on this kiddo. Although he played it off as being funny, he really did hear "arrested". How much of his day does he spend interpreting what was said and trying to make meaning out of the parts of words he hears? How much time does he spend trying to be silly to hide the fact he mis-heard directions? What information is he truly getting throughout the day?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

love those kids

9 days until summer break and we're all finished. Standardized testing is finished, grades are being completed, assessments have been taken, the pool is open, and all of us- kids and teachers- are ready to bounce. There are boiling hot days outside the building and inside the building the air conditioning isn't predictable, so you never know if you will be teaching in a tropical sauna, or an ice box. When the kids aren't cranky from the heat they're tired from late nights at the pool, or day dreaming of how fast they can get back in the water after school (and then there are those silly bracelets... but that's for another time)

Yet amongst the drama there are still those moments...

~After reading aloud Amazing Grace, one of my all-time favorite read-alouds in first grade, our friend from Iraq raised his hand. "Grace could do whatever she wanted because she has freedom. In America we are free. In my country we did not have freedom."

~One afternoon I returned to my desk to find a copy of Ramona, The Brave. I adore Ramona books and immediately assumed it was my own copy I'd loaned to a teacher. However, days went by and every teacher I asked swore it wasn't from them. Finally one of my friends came up to me in the hallway.
"Did you get my Ramona book?" she asked. "I got it at the free-book fair at the church I went to last week. It made me think of you since I know you love Ramona books. I thought you would enjoy re-reading it."

This is a little one with nothing. Her family recently lost everything and is homeless. And she wanted to give her free book to me, because she thought I would enjoy it.


We decided she should keep the book and that we would read it "together" over the summer- a chapter at a time, and email about how we liked the story. She thinks she'll be able to get email access this summer, so I'm looking forward to my first-grade virtual book club.

~"Mrs. Lipstick, look what I did to my finger when I was playing cricket!!" One of my first graders announced early one morning.

"You were doing what?"

"Playing cricket. You know, the real sport, with real balls, not like baseball. We use real balls. And real bats. It's really hard. Not like baseball."

~ I spend my Monday afternoon duty with three 5th grade safety patrols. Since we do not do much other than yell at children to get off the playground, or remind kids to walk and not run, we have time to chat. I get filled in on all the 5th grade gossip.

me: How's it going in 5th grade?
them: Terrible! We are taking FLE! (Family Life Education)

me: It's not that bad, is it?

them: Yes it is! We have to sit there and listen to teachers say words we didn't even know they knew!

yes, yes, even though you and your friends know those words us silly teachers have no idea about any of that....

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Education following the business model?

On our last leg of our trip back from Dominica I was bored enough to flip through the Skymall magazine. 3 flights in I was getting antsy, and plus, who doesn't love to marvel at odd items for purchase in Skymall?

On the back, like always, sat the add for Rosetta Stone language software. I think we are all familiar with Rosetta Stone, in fact, it's become an almost interchangeable term for learning a new language. Phrases like "Is there a Rosetta Stone for that?", or "I'm going to buy Rosetta Stone and then just pick up and leave the country" seem common these days.

When I graduated from college, not overly long ago, Rosetta Stone was a much smaller company set out in a small town nearby my school. Many of my friends went to work for them straight from undergrad- one even became one of their VPs. We watched them go from a nothing company to exploding into a house hold name. I'm sure they did this was good marketing skills, along with a good product. What made it good? (I've never used it, so really, I'm just going off their marketing, but I assume) It uses the science behind how people learn- brain research- to teach language.

It claims, "First, and most importantly, a child's natural learning-language ability emerges only in a speech-soaked, immersion environment free of translations and explanations of grammar. Second, a child's language learning is dramatically accelerated by constant feedback from family and friends. Positive correction and persistent reinforcement nurture the child's language and language skills into full communicative expression. Third, children learn through play, whether it's the arm-waving balancing act that announces their first step or the spluttering preamble to their first words. All the conversational chatter skittering through young children's play with parents and playmates... helps children develop language skills that connect them to the world. Adults possess this same powerful language-learning ability that orchestrated our language successes as children. Sadly, our clashes with vocabulary drills and grammar explanations force us to conclude it's hopeless."

SO, Rosetta Stone become a successful company by using their understanding of how children learn. They didn't "drill and kill" just because that's what's always been done. They didn't "take away meaningless play-time" because there are important tests to prepare for. They teach adults by understanding how good teaching must occur.

They are different than public schools, or any school, for the fact that anyone using their product is opting into using it. They do not have a captured audience. In this day and age of social networking they have to make sure the people that purchase their software actually learn something- otherwise they'll tell their friends the product was a fraud, and nobody will buy it in the future.

As teachers, Rosetta Stone cannot threaten to keep their students in from recess if they don't sit down and listen. They can't make it appear to the decision makers that there is good teaching, but in fact, not actually have students be learning. The final & true test for them is whether or not their students can communicate in another country, not an end of year assessment.

There is a lot of screaming and debating these days about making education more like a business. When people say this they mean they want students and parents to have choice, they want teachers to be able to be fired easily, they want frequent assessments to know if they are getting a worth-while product or not. They don't actually discuss what goes on inside classrooms, or, if they do, they use their own assumptions about education to drive these decisions. Most of the business-model focused advocates don't have an understanding of brain development, an understanding of learning, child development, or the actual science behind teaching. It's as though they're telling Pepsi to make better soda using the formula for mud pies.

Yet the reason Rosetta Stone has become a successful product is that it used the science. Their business model involved knowing how to successfully deliver information.

Why can't we do that as teachers as well? When did good teaching, scientifically-based teaching- get lost in the shuffle?

Ask Michelle Rhee (& others like her), what makes good teaching and she discusses quizzing students as they walk in line, having perfectly silent classrooms where teachers "bark" questions and students immediately reply in a rote fashion. Where did she get the idea this was good teaching? Not from an education class, or from any scientifically-based theories on how humans learn information. In fact, most of the "fixing education" theories these days don't involve teacher education at all. Or, if they do, the teacher education programs and professional development they push don't discuss how we, as humans learn. Everyone wants us to look like we are teaching in some 1950s movie, instead of actually doing what works.

For all those voices begging education to be more like a business I'd like to agree- let's be like businesses that truly understand what we are producing, let the experts (read: teachers) design a quality product that delivers, ignore the voices that take us away from focusing on what's important, and put all of our resources into doing what we all came here to do: teach the children.

Friday, June 4, 2010

sticks and curves

This morning splattypus walked into my room and handed me a clock worksheet she'd assigned to her kiddos last week when they had a sub. The sheet was not filled with correctly written times to correspond to each clock, nor did it have student-drawn hands in for each clock to tell the time. Instead the entire sheet was covered with very purposefully drawn lines with small circles attached to the top.

I got chills. We both stared at the sheet in awe, high-fived, and repeated phrases like "wow", "amazing", "I can't believe it!" over and over again.

To the untrained eye it might look like our student had refused to do her work and instead drew strange lines all over her paper, over and over again.

To us, it was practically brilliance.

When our friend began kindergarten she had no understanding that you could use a writing utensil to create meaningful marks on a paper. She could grasp a pencil or crayon and make marks on a paper, but rarely looked at what she was doing. Instead she drew squiggles and circles on her paper while staring into space, over and over again until we took the paper away.

So, slowly, we taught her that she can control what she puts on paper, and that it has meaning. And slowly, we've worked, day by day, piece by piece, to teacher her to form sticks and curves- the basic strokes she'd need to form letters. Then we began putting them together, a stick with a curve at the top, a P, the first letter of her name.
Sometimes she resisted- refused to write what we wanted, and instead only drew lines, or only circles. But other times she drew her sticks and curves connected with pride, knowing she was pleasing us. But always only when we prompted her to. And even then the circles sat on top of the sticks like lollipops, not quite a letter P anyone else would recognize.

As the year went on we watched her art work change from the unintentional swirls to very intentional circles and lines- but was she drawing something meaningful? We couldn't tell. Was it a cat? A sun? Or just lines on a page? Does she understand that drawing has meaning? The changes were small, but if you looked closely enough at her work over time you could see the change. She was making progress.

And then, this morning, we stared at the math worksheet covered in her own attempts at P's. She'd clearly worked hard on this sheet without being prompted- intentionally, on her own, independently, she worked on writing her sticks and curves. They were the closest to P's we'd ever seen her make. In fact, if an outside observer looked at them you might think those were P's.

I felt like dancing.

There are a million steps ahead of us for what we do next. If you look down that road it's easy to become overwhelmed and discouraged with her progress. They are only P-like marks after all. But when you stop to think about everything she showed us on that page- and how it represents all the many, many steps we've taken this year- you feel like dancing too. Tiny building blocks, coming together, piece by piece, that will one day equal a large, wonderful whole.