Time to un-hibernate


, , , , , ,

The weather in this corner of the northeast has been a real challenge. Since January 1 we’ve accumulated 4 school snow day cancellations; thank goodness this week was a school vacation week or we’d be adding at least one more snow day to the list.

Spending your vacation at home is not very exciting. Yes, we got some things accomplished, but there were no adventures for us this week. Unless you find shoveling heavy, wet snow up and over your head onto snowbanks the size of Mount Washington adventuresome. Or you think chipping 3 inches of ice off the driveway is fun.

It is hard to be spiritually uplifted when everything around you is the color of slate, crusted with sand and embedded with the roadside detritus torchidossed by commuters on the way to somewhere. The endless supply of grey, overcast sky seems to be a constant lately.

Yesterday, badly in need of a break from all this winter ambience, I took a detour from my to-do list of errands and ended up at a local garden greenhouse, miraculously open at this time of year. Oh, the beauty of the greens – ferns, prayer plants, coleus, African violets. There is something about the smell of the wet soil that is heavenly.

And so, I’ve declared this the end of my winter hibernation. We are moving toward spring, even if the spring is within the walls of a greenhouse.

And my soul is filled with promise and hope.


A Lesson in Discussion in Mathematics


, , , , ,

It wasn’t exactly where I had anticipated directing the discussion yesterday. And as it turns out, that was not only a moment of revelation, it was a glimpse into good things that can happen to mathematical discussions.

Have you seen a problem that is something like this one?

31 students are going on a field trip. They travel in cars holding 4 students and a driver. How many cars will they need?

With second language learners, I expected that we would have a discussion about what should be done with the remaining students.  We never actually got to that.

At the Summary point in our lesson, I asked volunteers to explain their thinking and computation for the problem. Three student volunteers stepped up to the document camera and explained their thinking: student one divided 31 by 3; student two divided by 4 and student three divided by 5.  Which one was correct?

The rest of the students kept turning around to me to see which of the three students had the right – as in which student had the one correct solution.  I’ve been working on this area of my teaching for a while now, and fortunately I did not take the bait.

Because had I stepped into the discussion as “teacher as the holder of all things correct” , I would have missed one of the all-time great moments of teaching — the time when the students follow all those discussion norms we’ve worked on and have a debate about which student had the most logical interpretation of this word problem.  I wish I had filmed it!

What did these fourth grade mathematicians decide? Although student one’s  interpretation made sense to him, there was general agreement “4 students and a driver”  did not mean divide by 3. Student two pointed out that bus drivers don’t go inside on field trips, so neither would car drivers; if the students were fourth graders, divide by 4. And student three? Student three is steadfastly holding the position that if the students were high school aged, one of them might be able to drive; therefore, divide by five.

And my question – what to do with the remaining students? Well, we’ll work on that one on another day.

Unintended consequences


, , ,

Most of the time when I see this phrase, it’s not a good thing. Today, however, there was an unintended consequence that fell into the plus side of the education balance sheet.

In anticipation of state testing, my students have been practicing writing to a prompt for a couple of weeks. This week, we practiced using this prompt from MCAS:

Think about a memory you have of a teacher. The memory could be something funny your teacher said or did, something your teacher taught you, a field trip you teacher took you on, or a time that your teacher made you feel proud.

Many children wrote about their Kindergarten teacher, or First or Second Grade. But one of my quietest students, unexpectedly wrote about me! Since the essay is about 6 pages long – dialog included – I won’t subject readers to the full writing. I certainly did hear my own voice projected through this student’s writing – some of the dialog describing a multiplication lesson seemed to come right out of my mouth with amazing accuracy! Hmmm, maybe I should be checking for recording devices?

But the words that this child wrote, the words that expressed this child’s feelings about me were that Mrs. Bisson “teaches in a funny way and gives you advice on how to remember important things”. What more could a teacher want than this?

After a difficult, stress-filled week at school, this child’s test prep (!) essay had the unintended consequence of lifting one bone-tired teacher’s spirits.

Beginning student led discussions


, , , , , , ,

“I can” statements are part of our lesson planning. I craft these statements for each segment of our day, direct student attention to them before, sometimes during, and after a lesson.

One of the mini lessons I planned this week was to introduce students to an FQR organizer (Facts-Questions-Response). Of course that included a link to the Common Core AND and “I can” statement.

After the mini lesson, students were directed to work in partnerships to read a nonfiction text found in our Reading Street books (not a fan of basals, but a great way to find multiple copies of a text) and with the partner jot on the FQR. Mindful of the role that academic language plays, I planned for students to collaborate in partnerships to complete the FQR and then use Turn and Talk to encourage discussion with another partnership.

I usually go into discussion-based activities expecting glitches and expecting that I may need to reteach and redirect students who enjoy social language a lot more than academic language :-)  This time, however, as I moved from group to group, I heard…. actual discussion of what facts were learned, wonderings, questions, and reactions to the text.

Mindful attention to the “I can” helped me to think about what my students would need to become successful. We not only worked on the process for an FQR, we reviewed our norms for discussion. And that allowed me to be an observer on the sidelines.206Books

I can turn and talk about facts, questions and responses to a nonfiction text. YES!

A New Voice for Education Reform


, , , , , ,

A colleague and friend shared this article from the Washington Post this week.

James Meredith, a hero of the Civil Rights Movement, is proposing another kind of education reform – one that is based on equity, on the idea that everyone – not just those who can parse the vagaries of charter school or private school lotteries and applications or financial good-standing – is entitled to a quality education.

Notice that high-stakes, one shot tests aimed at further alienating the haves and the have-nots is not on the list of the America Child’s Bill of Education Rights.  Of the 12 points – and I agree with them all – Number 12 is, for me, the most critical:

12.  A 21st Century Education: A school and a nation where children and teachers are supported, cherished and challenged, and where teachers are left alone to the maximum extent possible by politicians and bureaucrats to do their jobs – – which is to prepare children for life, citizenship, and careers with true 21st century skills: not by drilling them for standardized tests or forcing a culture of stress, overwork and fear upon them, but by helping them fall in love with authentic learning for the rest of their lives, inspiring them with joy, fun, passion, diligence, critical thinking and collaboration, new discoveries and excitement, and having the highest academic expectations of them.

Are you listening Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan?

Inferring Vocabulary


, , , , , ,

Kids can latch on to words in the most incredible ways. And second language learners really keep a teacher thinking.  As an English speaker, I give almost no thought to words and phrases we use every day that have multiple – and often unrelated connections – to meaning.  As a teacher of ELLs, however, that becomes part of the plan for each lesson. And as a teacher of a classroom made up of nearly three-quarters English Language Learners, it is a way of life.

This week, as we explored inferring unfamiliar words, that last point was brought to the fore with the following exchange:

Did China people eat off special plates on the Titanic?

This question did make me stop and wonder for several seconds – what in the world was this kid referring to? We had just finished looking for text clue to help infer the meaning of demitasse found in an article we were exploring from Harvey and GoudvisComprehension Toolkit Source Book entitled  “Titanic’s Legacy“. Where was this question coming from?

As it turns out, the question was not so out-of-left-field as I thought at first. One of the other illustrations found on the page we were studying was of a “China Serving Plate”. Which led us to a whole tangential discussion of the word “china”.

Never underestimate the power of words. Or the challenge of vocabulary.





I used to love the month of January. Not the weather, the concept of the month.

It was a month for new beginnings. For resetting classroom routines. For trying out something new.

Not any more.

Now January is a month of drudgery. Of test. After test. After test.

This week, I mapped out all of the assessments being required of my fourth grade students. It was shocking to write them down in one place: 2 days of ACCESS testing for my ELLs plus 15 minutes per student for the ACCESS Speaking subtests (about another day), Math pre- and post- module tests, Math Benchmark test, Scholastic Reading Inventory, Science District test, Scholastic Math Inventory, and a Writing On Demand test.

That’s 10 mandated tests in 20 days. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

January used to be fun for kids and for teacher. It used to be full of teachable moments. Of going outdoors on a cold day and exploring what happens to bubbles when you expose them to cold. Of celebrating the 100th day of school by pretending it was 100 degrees outdoors.  Not any more.

Now January is a month of tests. I dislike January. A lot.


Text to Self Connection


, , , , , , ,

When I was an undergraduate, practicing piano or flute was a drudgery that I could barely tolerate. I put in what I needed to put in to get through a performance, and, given that I was an adept reader of scores, that was pretty minimal.  I can recall sitting in several Form and Analysis classes and wondering how the heck I could cut it without affecting my grade.

This winter, as I have begun to become reacquainted with my piano, I’ve been mentally revisiting those music analysis classes. And I’ve discovered that while I struggle to activate the muscle memory for reaches on keys that I used to be able to just do, I’ve missed some things. I have been so focused on playing the notes accurately I have missed the nuance.

When I finally reached a level of note-playing that I could pay attention to the meaning of the melodic line, it was very freeing. Suddenly (well that’s not the right word!) I could hear what the piece should sound like. I understood.

And isn’t that exactly what happens with readers and writers. Our struggling readers and writers do their best to decode and mimic the writing elements of a genre. We offer up mentor texts, but unless we can take the time to analyze these texts with depth (and rigor), the students can only uncover the basics.

I think we try to do too much too quickly these days. A mile wide and an inch deep should not be the curriculum model we aspire to. Students need time and guidance to understand and to write agilely.

My connection? Learning to play a piece of music, moving beyond simply playing the score accurately, is very much like reading and writing.

Cooking and the Zen of Teaching


, ,

Since it is a vacation week, I find I have time to do a little cooking. Cooking is something I enjoy, but for 10 months of the year (and you can draw your own conclusions about which 10), I have little time to do it well. Hence the lack of posting on my other blog.

One of my less endearing habits is that I tend to latch on to the latest and greatest cooking gadgets. Oh how I love getting a catalog from William Sonoma, Sur la Table or Crate and Barrel.  I could spend significant time (and money) in those stores.

So what does this all have to do with education? Well, as I was chopping up some parsley this evening, I pulled out a kitchen gadget that I haven’t used in years – a parsley chopper.

As I started to roll my rediscovered gadget on a handful of beautifully fresh Italian parsley, the darn thing just would not cut. It mangled, it left cut marks, but it did not do the job anytwotoolswhere near as efficiently or as well as if I had just simply used a knife and chopped by hand; which is exactly what I ended up doing minutes. later.

This seems like a metaphor for the current state of education. Teachers all are given – and forced to use – some new gadgets or tools to improve their “performance”: a data collection program, a new curriculum.

New ideas aren’t all bad, but with increasing frequency it seems that a lot of the new gadgets meant to help educators might just be meant to help some corporation bottom line first. Those are the ideas – and gadgets – we need to be wary of.

This week I heard a fantastic quote by one of my education heroes, Richard Allington. The quote said “if your teachers need a test to tell them how their kids are doing, then you hired the wrong teachers.”

To which I’d like to add and if you need a gadget to teach, then perhaps you’ve hired the wrong teacher as well.

Newtown, A Year Later



Just the thought of Newtown makes me weep. I cry for the babies who were taken from their families on what should have been an ordinary school Friday with the excitement of a week’s vacation looming in the future. My heart breaks for the families, for the adults who tried so valiantly to keep those children safe and, despite Herculean efforts were unable to do so.

Because of Newtown, we have practiced newly revised procedures for the what-ifs. In my own classroom, I’ve thought and re-thought. What could I do to protect my own students should such an unfathomable tragedy visit my school, my classroom.

It angers me whenever I hear some talking head spout off that teachers “should be armed”. I  don’t own nor have I ever had interest in having a gun for one very personal reason; I have no intention of shooting another human.  Period. Weapons belong in the hands of those who are trained to use them. They belong to those who know the consequences of firing a weapon – not the sanitized version of violence that is presented for “entertainment”.

Just 364 days after Newtown, yet another gun in yet another school. Where and when will this end?

I wish I knew the answer. I wish I could promise my students that we would never again be weeping over families torn apart by senseless violence.

UPDATE 12/19/2013

In an act of brazenness, there was a shooting about 15 minutes after dismissal directly across the street from my school this week. As part of protocol, the school went into a hard lockdown.

Rumors fly, of course, but the truth of the situation was that most students had been dismissed (all buses had left) and the students who were still in the building were either late pick-ups or with the after school program. There were still staff in the building; I had just left the parking lot and, through a stroke of luck ended up on Lincoln Street driving away from the violence.  Some of my colleagues, however, were not so lucky and are naturally quite shaken.

The brazen aspect of this shooting is that it seems to have been some unconnected (to the school) violence taking place in close proximity to a school in the middle of the day. And that the alleged shooter did what he did in full view of many people.

While cautious and aware that violence can rear up at any time, I do not feel fearful walking around this neighborhood. My own affluent surburban neighborhood has also experienced gun violence in recent memory.

No one, no place is immune.

News article from Lowell Sun here



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 50 other followers